Projection of an immunological self shadow within the thymus by the aire protein.
Humans expressing a defective form of the transcription factor AIRE (autoimmune regulator) develop multiorgan autoimmune disease. We used aire- deficient mice to test the hypothesis that this transcription factor regulates autoimmunity by promoting the ectopic expression of peripheral tissue- restricted antigens in medullary epithelial cells of the thymus. This hypothesis proved correct. The mutant animals exhibited a defined profile of autoimmune diseases that depended on the absence of aire in stromal cells of the thymus. Aire-deficient thymic medullary epithelial cells showed a specific reduction in ectopic transcription of genes encoding peripheral antigens. These findings highlight the importance of thymically imposed "central" tolerance in controlling autoimmunity.