IL-7 enhances the survival and maintains the size of naive T cells.


T cells require continual presence of extrinsic signals from their in vivo microenvironment to maintain viability. T cells removed from these signals and placed in tissue culture atrophied and died in a caspase-independent manner. Atrophy was characterized by smaller cell sizes, delayed mitogenic responses, and decreased glycolytic rate. Bcl-2 expression remained constant in vitro despite ongoing cell death, indicating that endogenous Bcl-2 expression is insufficient to explain the life span and size control of lymphocytes in vivo and that cell-extrinsic signals provided may be required to maintain both cell viability and size in vivo. One such signal, IL-7, was found to maintain both the size and survival of neglected T cells in vitro. IL-7 was not unique, because the common gamma-chain cytokines IL-2, IL-4, and IL-15, as well as the gp130 cytokine IL-6, also promoted both T cell survival and size maintenance. IL-7 did not induce resting T cells to proliferate. Instead, IL-7 stimulated neglected T cells to maintain their metabolic rate at levels comparable to freshly isolated cells. The survival and trophic effects of IL-7 could be separated because IL-7 was able to promote up-regulation of Bcl-2 and maintain cell viability independent of phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase and mammalian target of rapamycin activity but was unable to prevent cellular atrophy when phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase and mammalian target of rapamycin were inhibited. These data demonstrate that T cells require the continuous presence of extrinsic signals not only to survive but also to maintain their size, metabolic activity, and the ability to respond rapidly to mitogenic signals.