Natural killer cell differentiation: insights from knockout and transgenic mouse models and in vitro systems

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In the last few years, the routine development of knockout and transgenic mice and the ease with which rare progenitor populations can be isolated from hematopoietic organs and cultured in vitro has facilitated significant advances in understanding the lineage and development of natural killer (NK) cells. Fluorescence-activated cell sorter analyses have identified a common lymphoid progenitor capable of giving rise to NK, T, and B cells, confirming the lymphoid origin of NK cells. Knockout and transgenic mouse models have pointed to an absolutely critical role for signals sent through the interleukin (IL)-2/15 receptor β (CD122) chain and common γ (γc) chain for NK development. Such signals are likely relayed inside the cell by the tyrosine kinase Jak3, which associates with γc. Recently developed IL-15 and IL-15 receptor α knockout mice have pinpointed IL-15 as the mediator of this signal. Other mouse models have indicated an unexpected role for flt3 ligand in early NK-cell development as well as minor roles for stem cell factor and IL-7 in expanding NK-cell progenitor numbers. Finally, in vitro culture systems have proven useful in identifying the point in NK development at which each of these signals is critical.

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