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It is reported that some bacteria or bacterial components cause thymic atrophy via the apoptotic process. The present study demonstrated for the first time in vivo induction of apoptosis in the mouse thymus by mycobacterial cord factor (CF) (trehalose 6,6'-dimycolate). When 300 microg of purified CF from Mycobacterium tuberculosis was intravenously administered to BALB/c mice in the form of water-in-oil-in-water (w/o/w) emulsion, thymic atrophy and pulmonary granulomas were induced with a peak on day 7, whereas, in the form of liposomes, CF induced thymic atrophy on days 14 to 21 in parallel with the development of hepatic granulomas. Thymic atrophy resulted from the depletion of cortical lymphocytes via apoptosis as revealed by DNA fragmentation and karyorrhectic changes. In contrast, mycobacterial sulfatide (2,3,6,6'-tetraacyl trehalose 2'-sulfate) caused neither thymic atrophy nor granuloma formation. Compared to lipopolysaccharide-induced thymocyte apoptosis, CF (w/o/w)-induced thymocyte apoptosis developed more slowly, reached a maximum later, and lasted longer but was less intense. Although serum tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) levels in CF-treated mice were not significantly elevated, administration of anti-TNF-alpha antibody almost completely inhibited thymic atrophy and granuloma formation. Serum corticosterone levels were only slightly elevated by CF administration. The present results indicate that mycobacterial CF induces thymic atrophy via apoptosis, which is closely linked with granuloma formation.