B cell receptor signaling controls the expression of IRF-4, a transcription factor required for B cell differentiation. This study shows that IRF-4 regulates divergent B cell fates via a ‘kinetic-control' mechanism that determines the duration of a transient developmental state.
The intensity of signaling through the B cell receptor controls the level of expression of IRF-4, a transcription factor required for B cell differentiation. The rate of IRF-4 production dictates the extent of antibody gene diversification that B cells undergo upon antigen encounter before differentiating into antibody-secreting plasma cells.Computational modeling and experimental analyses substantiate a model, whereby IRF-4 regulates B cell fate trajectories via a ‘kinetic-control' mechanism.Kinetic control is a process by which B cells pass through an obligate state of variable duration that sets the degree of cellular diversification prior to their terminal differentiation.An incoherent regulatory network architecture, within which IRF-4 is embedded, is the basis for realization of kinetic control.
The generation of a diverse set of pathogen-specific antibodies, with differing affinities and effector functions, by B lymphocytes is essential for efficient protection from many microorganisms. Antibody gene diversification in B cells is mediated by two molecular processes termed class-switch recombination and somatic hypermutation (CSR/SHM) (F1A). The former enables the generation of antibodies with the same antigen-binding specificity, but different effector domains, whereas the latter results in a repertoire of antibodies with a range of affinities for a given antigen containing the same effector domain. CSR/SHM occurs in antigen-activated B cells before their terminal differentiation into plasma cells. The transcription factor IRF-4 is required for CSR/SHM as well as plasma-cell differentiation, with its highest levels of expression being necessary for the latter. IRF-4 acts in the context of a network of regulators that include Blimp-1, Pax5, Bach2 and Bcl-6 (F1B). Despite extensive characterization of these individual factors, how the network responds to sensing of antigen by the B cell antigen receptor (BCR, antibody molecule expressed on cell surface) to regulate the extent of antibody gene diversification and plasma-cell differentiation remains to be addressed.
To address this issue, we assemble a computational model. The model reveals two contrasting scenarios that can underlie B cell fate dynamics. In one case, the initial rate of IRF-4 production controls a binary cell fate choice that involves either going to the CSR/SHM state or to the plasma-cell state; the time spent in the CSR state is relatively insensitive to the initial rate of IRF-4 production (herein called ‘basic bistability'). In the other case, IRF-4 drives all cells through a transient CSR/SHM state, but the initial rate of IRF-4 production sets its duration (‘kinetic control'). Both scenarios predict that increasing the initial rate of IRF-4 production favors the generation of plasma cells at the expense of CSR/SHM, but they differ fundamentally with respect to the underlying gene expression patterns.
To distinguish between these two scenarios experimentally, we utilize two different genetic models. The first involves the B1-8i transgenic mouse whose B cells express a rearranged V187.2 VDJ Ig heavy chain gene segment that is specific for the hapten nitrophenol (NP). The second is a newly developed mouse model that allows exogenous control of IRF-4 expression in naive primary B cells using a tet-inducible allele. Using these models, we show that (i) BCR signal strength sets the initial rate of IRF-4 accumulation and (ii) the concentration of IRF-4 is sensed by an incoherent gene regulatory network architecture to regulate the extent of CSR/SHM prior to plasma-cell differentiation. Our results are consistent with the ‘kinetic-control model' in which the levels of BCR-induced IRF-4 expression control the duration of an obligate CSR/SHM state that enables B cell diversification before terminal differentiation into plasma cells. Evidence for the transient CSR/SHM state is corroborated by both patterns of gene expression and the presence of AID-dependent mutations in individual non-switched plasmablasts.
Our results provide a molecular framework for understanding how B cells balance the competing demands for Ig CSR and SHM with the secretion of antibodies during humoral immune responses. The key feature of the network architecture that allows IRF-4 to coordinate the two competing states of gene expression in a temporal manner is that it simultaneously but asymmetrically activates both sides of a bistable mutual repression circuit. Because the two effects of the primary regulator antagonize each other, we describe the circuit as being based on an ‘incoherent' regulatory motif. Other incoherent regulatory motifs in varied biological systems are also associated with the acquisition of transient cell states, and we consider how the kinetic-control mechanism proposed by us could more generally serve to translate developmental cues into elaborate morphogenetic patterns.
The B-lymphocyte lineage is a leading system for analyzing gene regulatory networks (GRNs) that orchestrate distinct cell fate transitions. Upon antigen recognition, B cells can diversify their immunoglobulin (Ig) repertoire via somatic hypermutation (SHM) and/or class switch DNA recombination (CSR) before differentiating into antibody-secreting plasma cells. We construct a mathematical model for a GRN underlying this developmental dynamic. The intensity of signaling through the Ig receptor is shown to control the bimodal expression of a pivotal transcription factor, IRF-4, which dictates B cell fate outcomes. Computational modeling coupled with experimental analysis supports a model of ‘kinetic control', in which B cell developmental trajectories pass through an obligate transient state of variable duration that promotes diversification of the antibody repertoire by SHM/CSR in direct response to antigens. More generally, this network motif could be used to translate a morphogen gradient into developmental inductive events of varying time, thereby enabling the specification of distinct cell fates.