MTOR signaling is essential for the development of thymic epithelial cells and the induction of central immune tolerance

<p>Thymic epithelial cells (TECs) are critical for the establishment and maintenance of appropriate microenvironment for the positive and negative selection of thymocytes and the induction of central immune tolerance. Yet, little about the molecular regulatory network on TEC development and function is understood. Here, we demonstrate that MTOR (mechanistic target of rapamycin [serine/threonine kinase]) is essential for proper development and functional maturation of TECs. Pharmacological inhibition of MTOR activity by rapamycin (RPM) causes severe thymic atrophy and reduction of TECs. TEC-specific deletion of <i>Mtor</i> causes the severe reduction of mTECs, the blockage of thymocyte differentiation and output, the reduced generation of thymic regulatory T (Treg) cells and the impaired expression of tissue-restricted antigens (TRAs) including <i>Fabp2</i>, <i>Ins1</i>, <i>Tff3</i> and <i>Chrna1</i> molecules. Importantly, specific deletion of <i>Mtor</i> in TECs causes autoimmune diseases characterized by enhanced tissue immune cell infiltration and the presence of autoreactive antibodies. Mechanistically, <i>Mtor</i> deletion causes overdegradation of CTNNB1/Beta-Catenin due to excessive autophagy and the attenuation of WNT (wingless-type MMTV integration site family) signaling in TECs. Selective inhibition of autophagy significantly rescued the poor mTEC development caused by <i>Mtor</i> deficiency. Altogether, MTOR is essential for TEC development and maturation by regulating proliferation and WNT signaling activity through autophagy. The present study also implies that long-term usage of RPM might increase the risk of autoimmunity by impairing TEC maturation and function.</p>