Childhood is a critical period for the development of the memory B- lymphocyte repertoire necessary in protective humoral immunity. This study addressed the natural history of memory B cells based on the previous identification of germinal center and mantle zone cells as the probable precursor and mature memory cell populations, respectively. Using flow cytometric quantitation of these B-cell subpopulations in human tonsil, we found that germinal center cells were abundant (70% of tonsil B cells) during early childhood (2 to 3 years), but decline by early adolescence (8 to 14 years) to a low level (33%, P = .0003). To study the clonal evolution of these B-cell subpopulations, germinal center and mantle zone B cells were isolated using a preparative magnetic immunobead method, and analyzed using a novel polymerase chain reaction-based quantitative assay to measure the abundance of B-cell clones bearing certain rearranged VH subfamilies. Two VH subfamilies were informative: VH1N clones were uniquely deficient in germinal center B cells at the early age period, but became abundant in later childhood; and VH3L clones were absent among germinal center cells regardless of age. In contrast, B-cell clones bearing each VH subfamily were abundant in the mantle zone subpopulation throughout childhood. These findings suggest that the abundance and clonal pattern of germinal center B cells evolves during childhood, presumably due to changing antigenic or ontogenic processes. Moreover, the distinct clonal pattern of germinal center versus mantle zone B cells suggests that a major phase of clonal selection occurs after germinal center emigration.

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