Vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 is expressed by cortical thymic epithelial cells and mediates thymocyte adhesion. Implications for the function of alpha 4 beta 1 (vla4) integrin in t-cell development
T-cell development requires a series of discrete selection and activation signals delivered to maturing progenitors in the thymic cortex and medulla. We have previously shown the constitutive activity of the integrin, alpha4beta1 (VLA4), on a unique subpopulation of immature cortical thymocytes and proposed a role for integrin-mediated adhesion in positive selection by cortical epithelium. In the present report we show that thymic epithelial cell lines express vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) a high-affinity ligand for apha4beta1, and that VCAM-1 mediates thymocyte binding to these lines. Immunohistochemistry and confocal microscopy show that VCAM-1 is selectively expressed in situ by thymic epithelium in the cortex and corticomedullary junction, two locations at which VCAM-1 could determine the interaction between immature thymocytes and selecting elements on epithelial cells. In parallel, we confirmed that fibronectin (FN), the alternative ligand for alpha4beta1, is expressed predominantly in the medulla. These results suggest that VCAM-1 is an adhesive ligand in the thymic cortex for the activated form of alpha4beta1 constitutively expressed during development by immature double positive thymocytes. The structural segregation of the alternative ligand, FN, to the medulla suggests that medullary FN may regulate the migration, development, and export of more mature thymocytes.