The transcription factor PLZF (promyelocytic leukemia zinc finger; zbtb16) is essential for nearly all of the unique characteristics of NKT cells including their rapid and potent response to antigen. In the immune system, zbtb16 expression is only found in innate cells. Conventional T cells that ectopically express PLZF spontaneously acquire an activated, effector phenotype. Activation induced expression of lineage defining transcription factors such as T-bet, FoxP3, RORγt, GATA3 and others is essential for naïve T cell differentiation into effector T cells. In this study, we used sensitive genetic-based approaches to assess the induction of PLZF expression in non-innate T cells by T cell receptor (TCR)-mediated activation. Surprisingly, we found that PLZF was stably repressed in non-innate T cells and that TCR-mediated signaling was not sufficient to induce PLZF in conventional T cells. The inactivated state of PLZF was stably maintained in mature T cells, even under inflammatory conditions imposed by bacterial infection. Collectively, our data show that, in contrast to multiple recent reports, PLZF expression is highly specific to innate T cells and cannot be induced in conventional T cells via TCR-mediated activation or inflammatory challenge.
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