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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Science. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 January 20.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3282111

Asymmetric B cell division in the germinal center reaction


Lifelong antibody responses to vaccination require reorganization of lymphoid tissue and dynamic inter-cellular communication called the germinal center reaction. B lymphocytes undergo cellular polarization during antigen stimulation, acquisition, and presentation, which are critical steps for initiating humoral immunity. Here we show that germinal center B lymphocytes asymmetrically segregate the transcriptional regulator Bcl6, the receptor for interleukin-21, and the ancestral polarity protein atypical PKC to one side of the plane of division, generating unequal inheritance of fate-altering molecules by daughter cells. Germinal center B lymphocytes from mice with a defect in leukocyte adhesion fail to divide asymmetrically. These results suggest that motile cells lacking constitutive attachment can receive provisional polarity cues from the micro-environment to generate daughter cell diversity and self-renewal.

Humoral immunity requires an antigen-specific B cell to proliferate, differentiate, and self-renew. Refinement of antibody responses occurs in the germinal center (GC), a dynamic lymphoid structure where B cells with high-affinity receptors are selected to proliferate and give rise to antibody-secreting plasma cells and memory B cells (1, 2). Intravital imaging has suggested that B cells engage in prolonged, motile contacts with follicular helper T (TFH) cells prior to dividing and entering the GC (3, 4). In the GC, B cells acquire antigen from synapsis with follicular dendritic cells (FDCs) (5, 6), and clones with higher affinity receptors are thought to compete for subsequent contact with TFH cells by presenting greater abundance of antigen (3, 7). What signals promote disparate fate choices and regeneration of selected B cells are incompletely understood.

T lymphocytes engaged in immune responses appear to obtain polarity cues from antigen-presenting cells, yielding asymmetric division and diversification of daughter cell fates (810). Selection of B cells before and within the GC is linked to acquisition and presentation of antigen, processes characterized by provisional polarity of B cells (11). We, therefore, asked whether selected B cells might receive external polarity cues that could foster asymmetric division. To test this, we examined the morphology of splenic GC B cells from immunized mice to ascertain localization of key proteins (12). We initially examined the receptor for interleukin 21 (IL-21R) and the transcriptional regulator Bcl6, which function to initiate and maintain GC B cell identity, respectively (1316).

In GC B cells undergoing mitosis 8d following immunization, Bcl6 and IL-21R asymmetrically segregated to one side of the plane of division in 44% and 43% of cells (Fig. 1A). By contrast, the transcription factor IRF4 (17) and the transmembrane receptor B220 were symmetrically distributed (11% asymmetric). Asymmetry of Bcl6 in mitotic cells was also observed earlier (d5) and later (d15) after immunization (Fig. 1B). In pre-mitotic GC B cells, Bcl6 was localized within the nucleus, while IL-21R and the cell polarity regulator atypical PKCζ co-localized with the microtubule organizing center (MTOC) in a polarized manner (Fig. S1). PKCζ remained polarized in mitotic cells (Fig. 1C), suggesting that B cell asymmetric division has evolutionarily conserved features (811, 18).

Fig. 1
Asymmetric division of germinal center (GC) B cells. (A) Mitotic GC B cells from pooled spleens of 3 mice at d8 post-immunization stained for Bcl6, IL-21R, IRF4, or B220 (green), β-tubulin (red), and DNA (blue). Compared to tubulin, Bcl6 asymmetry ...

GC B cell division is thought to occur in a zone relatively free of FDCs and TFH cells (7). We, therefore, tested whether B cells could break free of polarity cues and retain an imprint of asymmetry. We mechanically disrupted splenic inter-cellular contacts into single-cell suspensions and cultured unattached GC B cells for 3h in the presence of cytochalasin B to arrest cells undergoing cytokinesis. Cells cleaving in isolation retained the property of asymmetric distribution of Bcl6, IL-21R, and PKCζ (Fig. 1D). In mitotic and cytokinetic cells, PKCζ co-segregated with Bcl6 and IL-21R in all instances where both were asymmetric (Fig. 1, C and D). PKCζ also co-localized with IL-21R at the single MTOC of interphase blasts in vivo (Fig. S1), as has been observed in vitro for PKCζ and antigen-presenting components of the B cell synapse (11). Thus, the daughter cell with preferential inheritance of Bcl6, IL-21R, and PKCζ may have arisen from the side of the B cell that was once proximal, and presenting antigen, to a TFH cell.

To determine whether TFH cell-associated signals promote mitotic B cell polarity, we stimulated naïve, CD23+ B cells in vitro with or without addition of anti-CD40 antibody to mimic a critical signal from TFH cells. Anti-CD40 in the culture media increased mitotic PKCζ polarity compared to baseline stimulation, while provision of anti-CD40 by adherence to the culture-dish bottom further increased the frequency of mitotic PKCζ asymmetry (Fig. 2A). CD40 signaling, as occurs when B cells present antigen to and receive cognate help from TFH cells, thus appears to facilitate asymmetry by providing and/or focusing a polarity cue to the B cell.

Fig. 2
Polarity cues are required for asymmetric division of B cells. (A) Naive B cells simulated 36h with anti-IgM, with or without anti-CD40 to mimic a key contact-mediated signal from TFH cells. Anti-CD40 was withheld, added solubly to media (“s”), ...

Further evidence that extrinsic contact may be critical for B cell asymmetric division was obtained from two separate in vivo approaches. Firstly, naïve B cells were transferred into lymphocyte-deficient mice (Rag1−/−) wherein excess growth factors support brisk lymphocyte division without need of antigen stimulation or cell-cell contact. Unimmunized B cells undergoing homeostatic division exhibited infrequent polarity of PKCζ (11%) compared to B cells from immunized mice (38%) (Fig. 2B).

It has been suggested that optimal B cell-T cell adhesion requires LFA-1-ICAM-1 interactions (19) and humans with leukocyte adhesion defects may exhibit impaired antibody production (20). Secondly, we tested whether ICAM-1 is required for B cells to divide asymmetrically following immunization. The frequencies of mitotic GC B cells that asymmetrically segregated Bcl6 and PKCζ were substantially reduced in the absence of ICAM-1 (Fig. 2B), suggesting cell-cell adhesion may be critical to the polarity cue received by asymmetrically dividing B cells. Absence of optimal cell adhesion had functional correlates beyond defective asymmetric B cell division insofar as immunized Icam1−/− mice exhibited substantial defects in generating antibody-secreting cells (Fig. 2C), despite relative preservation of germinal center composition (Fig. S2).

GC selection appears to license a B cell with a high-affinity receptor to proliferate (7). The present findings suggest that coupling receptor affinity to proliferation may do more than amplify the fittest cells. Coupling affinity to proliferation and asymmetric division may also provide the fittest cell with a robust mechanism, like that of a stem cell, to ensure its lifelong renewal (8, 18). Further investigation will be required to identify the fate of daughter B cells arising from asymmetric divisions before and during the GC reaction, and the requirements for cell diversification and regeneration in the immune response to pathogens and vaccines. Finally, it will be important to determine whether asymmetric division following facultative polarity is a widely conserved feature of mammalian differentiation and regeneration in normal and neoplastic cells.

Supplementary Material



We thank J. Chaix, S. Gordon, M. Paley, and L. Rupp for assistance. We are grateful for funding from NIH (AI042370 and AI076458 to S.L.R., T32GM07229 to B.E.B., T32HD007516 and 3T32GM007170-36S1 to M.L.C., T32AI055428 to R.G., AI065644 to J.K.B.), DOD (W81WWXWH1010185 to M.P.C.), VA (BX000435 to T.M.L.), and the Abramson family (S.L.R.). The data reported in this paper are tabulated in the main paper and in the Supporting Online Material.


The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

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