Natural killer (NK) and NK T cells are tissue lymphocytes that secrete cytokines rapidly upon stimulation. Here, we show that these cells maintain distinct patterns of constitutive cytokine mRNAs. Unlike conventional T cells, NK T cells activate interleukin (IL)-4 and interferon (IFN)-gamma transcription during thymic development and populate the periphery with both cytokine loci previously modified by histone acetylation. Similarly, NK cells transcribe and modify the IFN-gamma gene, but not IL-4, during developmental maturation in the bone marrow. Lineage-specific patterns of cytokine transcripts predate infection and suggest evolutionary selection for invariant but distinct types of effector responses among the earliest responding lymphocytes.
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