Positive selection occurs in the thymic cortex, but critical maturation events occur later in the medulla. Here we defined the precise stage at which T cells acquired competence to proliferate and emigrate. Transcriptome analysis of late gene changes suggested roles for the transcription factor NF-κB and interferon signaling. Mice lacking the inhibitor of NF-κB (IκB) kinase (IKK) kinase TAK1 underwent normal positive selection but exhibited a specific block in functional maturation. NF-κB signaling provided protection from death mediated by the cytokine TNF and was required for proliferation and emigration. The interferon signature was independent of NF-κB; however, thymocytes deficient in the interferon-α (IFN-α) receptor IFN-αR showed reduced expression of the transcription factor STAT1 and phenotypic abnormality but were able to proliferate. Thus, both NF-κB and tonic interferon signals are involved in the final maturation of thymocytes into naive T cells.
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