The rabbit establishes its primary Ab repertoire by somatically diversifying an initial repertoire that is limited by restricted V(H) gene segment usage during VDJ gene rearrangement. Somatic diversification occurs in gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), and by about 1-2 mo of age nearly all Ig VDJ genes are somatically diversified. In other species that are known to establish their primary Ab repertoire by somatic diversification, such as chicken, sheep, and cattle, diversification appears to be developmentally regulated: it begins before birth and occurs independent of exogenous factors. Because somatic diversification in rabbit occurs well after birth in GALT, the diversification process may not be developmentally regulated, but may require interaction with exogenous factors derived from the gut. To test this hypothesis, we examined Ab repertoire diversification in rabbits in which the appendix was ligated shortly after birth to prevent microbial colonization and all other organized GALT was surgically removed. We found that by 12 wk of age nearly 90% of the Ig VDJ genes in PBL were undiversified, indicating that intestinal microflora are required for somatically diversifying the Ab repertoire. We also examined repertoire diversification in sterilely derived remote colony rabbits that were hand raised away from contact with conventional rabbits and thereby acquired a different gut microflora. In these remote colony rabbits, GALT was underdeveloped, and 70% of the Ig VDJ genes in PBL were undiversified. We conclude that specific, currently unidentified intestinal microflora are required for Ab repertoire diversification.
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