The promiscuous expression of tissue-restricted antigens in the thymus, driven in part by autoimmune regulator (Aire), is critical for the protection of peripheral tissues from autoimmune attack. Aire-dependent processes are thought to promote both clonal deletion and the development of Foxp3+ regulatory T (Treg) cells, suggesting that autoimmunity associated with Aire deficiency results from two failed tolerance mechanisms. Here, examination of autoimmune lesions inAire−/−mice revealed an unexpected third possibility. We found that the predominant conventional T cell clonotypes infiltrating target lesions express antigen receptors that were preferentially expressed by Foxp3+ Treg cells inAire+/+mice. Thus, Aire enforces immune tolerance by ensuring that distinct autoreactive T cell specificities differentiate into the Treg cell lineage; dysregulation of this process results in the diversion of Treg cell-biased clonotypes into pathogenic conventional T cells.
Aire-dependent promiscuous gene expression in the thymus is critical for the protection of peripheral organs from autoimmune attack. Savage and colleagues demonstrate that in Aire−/− mice, Treg cell-biased clones are mis-directed into the T conventional cell subset and dominate the T cell infiltrate in autoimmune target lesions.