There is still controversy concerning the nature of the stem cells from bone marrow that colonize the thymus during embryogenesis and continually throughout life. To identify the bone marrow stem cells that home to and populate the thymus, we screened murine bone marrow cells for the presence of a population of surface phenotype similar to the earliest known intrathymic precursor. We have identified a population characterized by expression of an intermediate level of heat stable antigen, a very low level of Thy-1, and high levels of CD44 and class I major histocompatibility complex antigens. It is negative for B- cell, granulocyte, macrophage, and erythrocyte markers (B220, Gr-1, Mac- 1, and TER 119). All these markers are common to the intrathymic precursors and bone marrow stem cells. However, this new bone marrow population is Sca-2+, similar to the intrathymic precursor, which makes a clear distinction from the Sca-2- bone marrow hematopoietic stem cells previously characterized. The frequency of the new population in the normal mouse bone marrow is about 0.25%. When transferred intrathymically or intravenously to lethally irradiated mice, it has a higher expansion potential (2 x 10(5)) than has been found for the intrathymic precursors (10(3)), but less than was found for the Sca-2- multipotent stem cell (10(7)). These transfer studies also showed that it was pluripotent, in that its precursor activity was not restricted to the production of T or B lymphocytes. However, it gave a reduced spleen colony number and smaller colonies (day-12 colony-forming unit spleen) when compared with multipotent stem cells. Thus, the cell we have identified appears to be the latest pluripotent cells so far identified in bone marrow and is therefore a good candidate for a bone marrow prothymocyte, but it appears not to be T-cell-committed.

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