Regulatory T cells expressing the transcription factor T-bet selectively suppress TH1 and CD8 T cells, but not TH2 or TH17 activation and associated autoimmunity.
Adaptive immune responses are tailored to different types of pathogens through differentiation of naive CD4 T cells into functionally distinct subsets of effector T cells (T helper 1 (TH1), TH2, and TH17) defined by expression of the key transcription factors T-bet, GATA3, and RORγt, respectively1. Regulatory T (Treg) cells comprise a distinct anti-inflammatory lineage specified by the X-linked transcription factor Foxp3 (refs 2, 3). Paradoxically, some activated Treg cells express the aforementioned effector CD4 T cell transcription factors, which have been suggested to provide Treg cells with enhanced suppressive capacity4,5,6. Whether expression of these factors in Treg cells—as in effector T cells—is indicative of heterogeneity of functionally discrete and stable differentiation states, or conversely may be readily reversible, is unknown. Here we demonstrate that expression of the TH1-associated transcription factor T-bet in mouse Treg cells, induced at steady state and following infection, gradually becomes highly stable even under non-permissive conditions. Loss of function or elimination of T-bet-expressing Treg cells—but not of T-bet expression in Treg cells—resulted in severe TH1 autoimmunity. Conversely, following depletion of T-bet− Treg cells, the remaining T-bet+ cells specifically inhibited TH1 and CD8 T cell activation consistent with their co-localization with T-bet+ effector T cells. These results suggest that T-bet+ Treg cells have an essential immunosuppressive function and indicate that Treg cell functional heterogeneity is a critical feature of immunological tolerance.