Molecular events mediating the T-lymphocyte response to lectins are still incompletely understood, although much evidence suggests that both the mitogenic and the death-promoting effects of these agents involve the biochemical cascade initiated by the CD3/T-cell antigen receptor (TCR) complex. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) and in particular H2O2 have been shown to have a role in cell response to cytokines and growth factors. Here we report that the proliferation of mouse thymocytes in response to the mitogenic lectin concanavalin A (ConA) is strongly and selectively inhibited by the intracellular ROS scavenger N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and by diphenyleneiodonium (DPI), a potent inhibitor of NADPH-dependent membrane oxidases activated by surface receptors. A rapid ‘burst’ of intracellular oxygen radicals was observed in mouse thymocytes stimulated by ConA, with kinetics that paralleled the appearance of tyrosine-phosphorylated proteins. This burst was abrogated by the pretreatment of cells with NAC or DPI. Only a modest increase in intracellular oxygen species was found in thymocytes stimulated by strong cross-linking of TCR together with CD4 or CD28. Pharmacological interference with ROS production in ConA-stimulated thymocytes resulted in a decreased tyrosine phosphorylation of multiple protein species, including a 38 kDa band able to recruit the adapter protein Grb2 and corresponding to the recently identified transducer LAT (linker for activation of T-cells), a molecule involved in linking activated TCR to the production of interleukin 2 and the proliferation of T-cells. Furthermore, ROS inhibition markedly attenuated the activation of stress-activated protein kinase/JNK-1 (c-Jun N-terminal kinase 1) in response to lectins. Taken together, these results identify ROS as important modulators of the signalling cascade initiated by mitogenic lectins in thymocytes and, by extension, as a novel class of mediators downstream of antigen receptors.

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