During αβ T cell development, cells diverge into alternate CD4 helper and CD8+ cytotoxic T cell lineages. The precise correlation between a T cell's CD8 and CD4 choice and its TCR specificity to class I or class II MHC was noted more than 20 years ago, and establishing the underlying mechanism has remained a focus of intense study since then. This review deals with three formerly discrete topics that are gradually becoming interconnected: the role of TCR signaling in lineage commitment, the regulation of expression of the CD4 and CD8 genes, and transcriptional regulation of lineage commitment. It is widely accepted that TCR signaling exerts a decisive influence on lineage choice, although the underlying mechanism remains intensely debated. Current evidence suggests that both duration and intensity of TCR signaling may control lineage choice, as proposed by the kinetic signaling and quantitative instructive models, respectively. Alternate expression of the CD4 and CD8 genes is the most visible manifestation of lineage choice, and much progress has been made in defining the responsible elements and transcription factors. Finally, important clues to the molecular basis of lineage commitment have been provided by the recent identification of the transcription factor ThPOK as a key regulator of lineage choice. ThPOK is selectively expressed in class II–restricted cells at the CD4+8lo stage and is necessary and sufficient for development to the CD4 lineage. Given the central role of ThPOK in lineage commitment, understanding its upstream regulation and downstream gene targets is expected to reveal further important aspects of the molecular machinery underlying lineage commitment.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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