Age-related thymic involution is characterized by a decrease in thymic epithelial cell (TEC) number and function parallel to a disruption in their spatial organization, resulting in defective thymocyte development and proliferation as well as peripheral T cell dysfunction. Deficiency of Klotho, an antiaging gene and modifier of fibroblast growth factor signaling, causes premature aging. To investigate the role of Klotho in accelerated age-dependent thymic involution, we conducted a comprehensive analysis of thymopoiesis and peripheral T cell homeostasis using Klotho-deficient (Kl/Kl) mice. At 8 wk of age, Kl/Kl mice displayed a severe reduction in the number of thymocytes (10-100-fold reduction), especially CD4 and CD8 double-positive cells, and a reduction of both cortical and medullary TECs. To address a cell-autonomous role for Klotho in TEC biology, we implanted neonatal thymi from Klotho-deficient and -sufficient mice into athymic hosts. Kl/Kl thymus grafts supported thymopoiesis equivalently to Klotho-sufficient thymus transplants, indicating that Klotho is not intrinsically essential for TEC support of thymopoiesis. Moreover, lethally irradiated hosts given Kl/Kl or wild-type bone marrow had normal thymocyte development and comparably reconstituted T cells, indicating that Klotho is not inherently essential for peripheral T cell reconstitution. Because Kl/Kl mice have higher levels of serum phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin D, we evaluated thymus function in Kl/Kl mice fed with a vitamin D-deprived diet. We observed that a vitamin D-deprived diet abrogated thymic involution and T cell lymphopenia in 8-wk-old Kl/Kl mice. Taken together, our data suggest that Klotho deficiency causes thymic involution via systemic effects that include high active vitamin D levels.
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This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health Grants P01 CA065493, R01 AI081918, and 2P01 CA065493, and the Children’s Cancer Research Fund.