The intestinal epithelium, which segregates the highly stimulatory lumen from the underlying tissue, harbors one of the largest lymphocyte populations in the body, intestinal intraepithelial lymphocytes (IELs). IELs must balance tolerance, resistance, and tissue protection to maintain epithelial homeostasis and barrier integrity. This review discusses the ontogeny, environmental imprinting, T cell receptor (TCR) repertoire, and function of intestinal IELs. Despite distinct developmental pathways, IEL subsets share core traits including an epithelium-adapted profile, innate-like properties, cytotoxic potential, and limited TCR diversity. IELs also receive important developmental and functional cues through interactions with epithelial cells, microbiota, and dietary components. The restricted TCR diversity of IELs suggests that a limited set of intestinal antigens drives IEL responses, with potential functional consequences. Finally, IELs play a key role in promoting homeostatic immunity and epithelial barrier integrity but can become pathogenic upon dysregulation. Therefore, IELs represent intriguing but underexamined therapeutic targets for inflammatory diseases and cancer.

Expected final online publication date for the , Volume 42 is April 2024. Please see http://www.annualreviews.org/page/journal/pubdates for revised estimates.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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