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Rapid Default Transition Of CD4 T Cell Effectors To Functional Memory Cells

K. Kai McKinstry, Susanne Golech, Won-Ha Lee, Gail Huston, Nan-Ping Weng, Susan L. Swain

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The majority of highly activated CD4 T cell effectors die after antigen clearance, but a small number revert to a resting state, becoming memory cells with unique functional attributes. It is currently unclear when after antigen clearance effectors return to rest and acquire important memory properties. We follow well-defined cohorts of CD4 T cells through the effector-to-memory transition by analyzing phenotype, important functional properties, and gene expression profiles. We find that the transition from effector to memory is rapid in that effectors rested for only 3 d closely resemble canonical memory cells rested for 60 d or longer in the absence of antigen. This is true for both Th1 and Th2 lineages, and occurs whether CD4 T cell effectors rest in vivo or in vitro, suggesting a default pathway. We find that the effector–memory transition at the level of gene expression occurs in two stages: a rapid loss of expression of a myriad of effector-associated genes, and a more gradual gain of expression of a cohort of genes uniquely associated with memory cells rested for extended periods.