T cells leave the thymus at a specific time during differentiation and do not return despite elaboration of known T cell chemoattractants by thymic stroma. We observed differentiation stage-restricted egress of thymocytes from an artificial thymus in which vascular structures or hemodynamics could not have been playing a role. Hypothesizing that active movement of cells away from a thymic product may be responsible, we demonstrated selective reduction in emigration from primary thymus by inhibitors of active movement down a concentration gradient (chemofugetaxis). Immature intrathymic precursors were insensitive to an emigration signal, whereas mature thymocytes and peripheral blood T cells were sensitive. Thymic stroma was noted to elaborate at least two proteins capable of inducing emigration, one of which was stromal cell-derived factor-1. Thymic emigration is mediated, at least in part, by specific fugetaxis-inducing factors to which only mature cells respond.
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