Self-renewal of double negative 3 (DN3) early thymocytes allows for thymus autonomy but compromises the β-selection checkpoint


T lymphocyte differentiation in the thymus relies on high cellular turnover, and cell competition enforces thymocyte replenishment. If deprived of competent progenitors, the thymus can maintain thymopoiesis autonomously for several weeks but this bears a high risk of leukemia. Here we show that double negative 3 early (DN3e) thymocytes can acquire stem cell like properties, which enables them to maintain thymopoiesis. Specifically, DN3e proved to be long-lived, they proliferated and differentiated in vivo, were necessary for autonomous thymopoiesis, and included DNA-label-retaining cells. Single cell RNAseq revealed a transcriptional program of thymopoiesis similar in autonomy and the controls. Nevertheless, a new population was identified in thymus autonomy that was enriched for an aberrant Notch target gene signature and bypassed the β−selection checkpoint. In sum, DN3e have the potential to self-renew and differentiate in vivo if cell competition is compromised but this enables the accumulation of atypical cells, probably leading to leukemia.

bioRxiv, 2021.