Frontiers in Immunology (2020-09-01)

Molecular Insights Into Regulatory T-Cell Adaptation to Self, Environment, and Host Tissues: Plasticity or Loss of Function in Autoimmune Disease

  • Cheryl Y. Brown,
  • Timothy Sadlon,
  • Timothy Sadlon,
  • Christopher M. Hope,
  • Ying Y. Wong,
  • Soon Wong,
  • Ning Liu,
  • Holly Withers,
  • Katherine Brown,
  • Veronika Bandara,
  • Batjargal Gundsambuu,
  • Stephen Pederson,
  • James Breen,
  • Sarah Anne Robertson,
  • Alistair Forrest,
  • Marc Beyer,
  • Simon Charles Barry,
  • Simon Charles Barry

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 11


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There has been much interest in the ability of regulatory T cells (Treg) to switch function in vivo, either as a result of genetic risk of disease or in response to environmental and metabolic cues. The relationship between levels of FOXP3 and functional fitness plays a significant part in this plasticity. There is an emerging role for Treg in tissue repair that may be less dependent on FOXP3, and the molecular mechanisms underpinning this are not fully understood. As a result of detailed, high-resolution functional genomics, the gene regulatory networks and key functional mediators of Treg phenotype downstream of FOXP3 have been mapped, enabling a mechanistic insight into Treg function. This transcription factor-driven programming of T-cell function to generate Treg requires the switching on and off of key genes that form part of the Treg gene regulatory network and raises the possibility that this is reversible. It is plausible that subtle shifts in expression levels of specific genes, including transcription factors and non-coding RNAs, change the regulation of the Treg gene network. The subtle skewing of gene expression initiates changes in function, with the potential to promote chronic disease and/or to license appropriate inflammatory responses. In the case of autoimmunity, there is an underlying genetic risk, and the interplay of genetic and environmental cues is complex and impacts gene regulation networks frequently involving promoters and enhancers, the regulatory elements that control gene expression levels and responsiveness. These promoter–enhancer interactions can operate over long distances and are highly cell type specific. In autoimmunity, the genetic risk can result in changes in these enhancer/promoter interactions, and this mainly impacts genes which are expressed in T cells and hence impacts Treg/conventional T-cell (Tconv) function. Genetic risk may cause the subtle alterations to the responsiveness of gene regulatory networks which are controlled by or control FOXP3 and its target genes, and the application of assays of the 3D organization of chromatin, enabling the connection of non-coding regulatory regions to the genes they control, is revealing the direct impact of environmental/metabolic/genetic risk on T-cell function and is providing mechanistic insight into susceptibility to inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.