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Paper Chase

The variable immunological self: genetic variation and nongenetic noise in Aire-regulated transcription.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A.. Oct 14, 2008;105(41):15860-5.
Venanzi ES, Melamed R, Mathis D, Benoist C.

Section on Immunology and Immunogenetics, Joslin Diabetes Center, Boston, MA 02215, USA.


The Aire transcription factor plays an important role in immunological self-tolerance by mediating the ectopic expression of peripheral self-antigens by thymic medullary epithelial cells (MECs), and the deletion of thymocytes that recognize them. In Aire-deficient humans or mice, central tolerance is incomplete and multiorgan autoimmune disease results. We examined the variability of Aire's effects on ectopic transcription among individual mice of three different inbred strains. Aire's function was, overall, quite similar in the three backgrounds, although generally stronger in C57BL/6 than in BALB/c or NOD mice, and a minority of Aire-regulated genes did show clear differences. Gene expression profiling of wild-type MECs from single mice, or from the two thymic lobes of the same mouse, revealed significantly greater variability in Aire-controlled ectopic gene expression than in Aire-independent transcripts. This "noisy" ectopic expression did not result from parental or early developmental imprinting, but from programming occurring after the formation of the thymic anlage, resulting from epigenetic effects or from the stochastic nature of Aire activity. Together, genetic and nongenetic variability in ectopic expression of peripheral antigens in the thymus make for differences in the portion of self determinants presented for tolerance induction. This variable self may be beneficial in preventing uniform holes in the T-cell repertoire in individuals of a species, but at the cost of variable susceptibility to autoimmunity.