The level of CD4 surface protein influences T cell selection in the thymus.
During T cell development thymocytes are subjected to positive and negative selection criteria to ensure that the mature T cell repertoire is MHC restricted, yet self tolerant at the same time. The CD4 and CD8 coreceptors are thought to play a crucial role in this developmental process. To elucidate the role of CD4 in T cell selection, we have produced a mouse strain that expresses CD4 at a reduced level. We used homologous recombination in embryonic stem cells to insert neo into the 3' untranslated region of CD4. The resulting mice have a reduction in the percentage of CD4+ cells in the thymus and a concomitant increase in CD8+ cells. In addition, breeding two individual class II-restricted TCR transgenic mice onto the CD4low (low level of CD4) mutant background affects the selection of each TCR differentially. In one case (AND TCR transgenic), significantly fewer CD4+ cells with the transgenic TCR develop on the CD4low mutant background, whereas in the other (5C.C7 TCR transgenic), selection to the CD4 lineage is only slightly reduced. These data support the differential avidity model of positive and negative selection. With little or no avidity, the cell succumbs to programmed cell death, low to moderate avidity leads to positive selection, and an avidity above a certain threshold, presumably above one that would lead to autoreactivity in the periphery results in clonal deletion. These data also support the idea that a minimum avidity threshold for selection exists and that CD4 plays a crucial role in determining this avidity.