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BACKGROUND: We have previously demonstrated CD8+ T cell clonal dominance using a PCR assay for the CDR3 length of T cell receptors belonging to a limited number of TCRBV segments/families. In this study, we have modified this approach in order to analyze more comprehensively the frequency of oligoclonality in the CD8+ T cell subset in 25 known TCRBV segments/families. In order to assess the relative roles of genes and environment in the shaping of a clonally restricted CD8+ T cell repertoire, we have analyzed clonal dominance in the CD8+ T cell population of monozygotic twins, related siblings, and adoptees. MATERIALS AND METHODS: Oligoclonality was assessed in the CD8+ T cell subsets using a multiplex PCR approach to assay for CDR3 length variation across 25 different TCRBV segments/families. Specific criteria for oligoclonality were established, and confirmed by direct sequence analysis of the PCR products. This assay was used to investigate the CD8+ T cell repertoire of 56 normal subjects, as well as six sets of monozygotic (MZ) twins. RESULTS: Seventy-two percent of normal subjects (n = 56) had evidence of oligoclonality in the CD8+ T cell subset, using well-defined criteria. Although MZ twins frequently displayed CD8+ T cell clonal dominance, the overall pattern of oligoclonality was very diverse within each twin pair. However, we occasionally observed dominant CD8+ T cell clones that were highly similar in sequence in both members of some twin pairs. Not a single example of such similarity was observed in normal controls or siblings. CONCLUSIONS: Oligoclonality of circulating CD8+ T cells is a characteristic feature of the human immune system; both host genetic factors and environment shape the pattern of oligoclonality in this T cell subset. The high frequency of this phenomenon in normal subjects provides a background with which to evaluate CD8+ T cell oligoclonality in the setting of infection or autoimmune disease. Further phenotypic and functional characterization of these clonally expanded T cells should provide insight into normal immune homeostasis.