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Thymic T cell development is initiated from bone-marrow-derived multi potent thymus-seeding progenitors. During the early stages of thymocyte differentiation, progenitors become T cell restricted. However, the cellular environments supporting these critical initial stages of T cell development within the thymic cortex are not known. Here we use the dependence of early, c-Kit-expressing thymic progenitors on Kit ligand (KitL) to show that CD4(-)CD8(-)c-Kit(+)CD25(-) DN1-stage progenitors associate with, and depend on, the membrane-bound form of KitL (mKitL) provided by a cortex-specific KitL-expressing vascular endothelial cell (VEC) population. In contrast, the subsequent CD4(-)CD8(-)c-Kit(+)CD25(+) DN2-stage progenitors associate selectively with cortical thymic epithelial cells (cTECs) and depend on cTEC-presented mKitL. These results show that the dynamic process of early thymic progenitor differentiation is paralleled by migration-dependent change to the supporting niche, and identify VECs as a thymic niche cell, with mKitL as a critical ligand.

Original publication




Journal article


Nat Cell Biol

Publication Date





157 - 167


Animals, Cell Differentiation, Cell Lineage, Cell Movement, Cells, Cultured, Coculture Techniques, Endothelial Cells, Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental, Mice, Transgenic, Multipotent Stem Cells, Paracrine Communication, Phenotype, Signal Transduction, Stem Cell Factor, Stem Cell Niche, Thymocytes