MACS Handbook

Mouse CD8+ cytotoxic T cells

1 Introduction

CD8+ cytotoxic T cells are a subtype of T cells and the main effectors of cell-mediated adaptive immune responses. They kill aberrant cells, such as cancer cells, infected cells (particularly with viruses), or cells that are damaged in other ways.

Through binding to their T cell receptor (TCR), cytotoxic T cells recognize their cognate antigen presented on the surface of a target cell by a class I MHC molecule. For efficient binding of the TCR to the class I MHC molecule, the former must be accompanied by a glycoprotein called CD8. Therefore, these T cells are called CD8+ T cells. Successful recognition of an antigen leads then to the killing of the target cell.

Cytotoxic T cells have two main mechanisms of killing a target cell. First, release of perforin, granzymes, and granulysin permeabilizes the cell membrane, triggers the caspase cascade, and thereby ultimately leads to apoptosis (programmed cell death) of the target cell. A second strategy induces apoptosis through Fas-mediated, direct cell-cell interaction of the cytotoxic T cell and the target cell. Activated cytotoxic T cell express Fas ligand (FasL) on their surface that can bind to the Fas receptor (Fas) on the target cell. This interaction again leads to caspase-induced apoptosis of the target cell.

The cytotoxic ability of this T cell subset is of great interest to scientists in the context of immune therapy.

2 CD8+ cytotoxic T cells in spleen and lymphoid tissue

A typical mouse spleen weighs between 80 and 120 mg and contains up to 1´108 splenocytes. T cells constitute roughly 25% of all splenocytes, with the CD4+ T cells accounting for approximately two thirds of the total T cell population, and CD8+ T cells making up the remaining one third. Cell numbers in lymph nodes vary, but up to 80% of the total lymph node cell population are T cells, again with a CD4+:CD8+ T cell ratio of 2:1. Cells in the thymus of a young mouse, however, may be over 90% T cells, most of them in a double-positive stage, expressing both CD4 and CD8.

2.1 Cell subsets, frequencies, and marker expression

Most T cell subtypes can undergo several differentiation steps after activation by their respective antigen. Apart from differentiating into effector T cells, some naive T cells (TNAIVE) may differentiate into various memory T cell subsets, including stem cell–like memory T cells (TSCM), central memory T cells (TCM), and effector memory T cells (TEM). Each subset is defined by distinct surface markers. Antigen-inexperienced T cells express homing receptors CD62L and CCR7, but lack expression of activation markers CD44 and CD95. With ongoing differentiation towards the memory phenotypes, CD62L and CCR7 are down-regulated, while CD44 and CD95 are gradually up-regulated. With progressive differentiation towards the memory phenotype, antigen-dependency, tissue tropism, effector function and senescence increase (PMID: 24258910, 26999211)

Shared features of all memory T cell subtypes are that they are long-lived and can quickly expand to large numbers of effector T cells upon re-exposure to their cognate antigen, thereby mounting a faster and more potent immune response than the first immune response to a given pathogen. The different subtypes exert different functions and exhibit different properties, such as tissue tropism or capacity for self-renewal, reflecting the specific immune-related circumstances that led to their differentiation into a given memory subtype.
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Overview of mouse T cell differentiation from naive to memory T cells (PMID: 24258910, 26999211).

Typically, the frequency of naïve T cells specific for a given antigen is very low, ranging between 0.01 and 0.001% of the total T cell count, depending on the respective specificity. When a naïve T cell encounters its cognate antigen and is consequently activated, clonal expansion begins, boosting the frequency of those antigen-specific T cells by several orders of magnitude. This way, they can efficiently fulfill their role as effectors in the immune response (PMID: 22517866, 17707129).

Most clonally expanded antigen-specific T cells die after the termination of the immune response, but a small percentage survive as memory T cells. Memory T cells have a long lifespan and can quickly expand to large numbers of effector T cells upon re-exposure to their cognate antigen. At birth, the T cell repertoire is almost exclusively composed of naïve T cells. With progressing age and antigen-experience, memory T cells may become the most abundant T cell population, constituting up to 35% of all circulating T cells (PMID: 24336101).

Notably, laboratory mice carry almost exclusively naïve T cells due to their specific holding conditions and relatively young average age. This, of course, changes dramatically in certain disease-related experimental settings. In humans, the frequency of naïve and memory T cells greatly depends on age, living conditions, and individual history of immune responses.

2.2 Sample preparation of spleen and lymphoid tissue

The main source for mouse CD8+ T cells are single-cell suspensions from spleen and lymph nodes. The tissue must be dissociated into a single-cell suspension for many downstream applications, including isolation of cell subpopulations, cell culture, or flow cytometry analysis.

Dissociation can be accomplished fully automatically using the gentleMACS™ Dissociator and specific Tissue Dissociation Kits (e.g., Spleen Dissociation Kit, mouse). A special protocol for the preparation of single-cell suspensions from mouse spleen without enzymatic treatment can be downloaded from the Related Resources panel to the right. Alternatively, tissues can be dissociated using a manual procedure. For details, see chapter Mouse cell sources.

2.3 Magnetic cell separation of CD8+ cytotoxic T cells from spleen and lymph nodes

Miltenyi Biotec has developed numerous products for the efficient magnetic separation of T cells in single-cell suspensions generated from mouse spleen and lymph nodes. For details on MACS® Cell Separation Technology, see the MACS Handbook chapter Magnetic Cell Separation .
2.3.1 Isolation of CD8+ T cells
At a glance: Kits and reagents for the separation of CD8+ T cells from spleen and lymph nodes 
Starting materialIsolation strategyCommentsAutomationProduct
Single-cell suspensions from spleen and lymph nodesPositive selection of target cells The marker CD8 is predominantly expressed on T killer cells. Suitable for the depletion or enrichment of CD8+ cells.Yes*CD8a (Ly-2) MicroBeads, mouse
Single-cell suspensions from spleen and lymph nodesDepletion of non-target cellsIsolation of CD8+ T cells via depletion of all non-target cells via antibodies against CD4, CD11b, CD11c, CD19, CD45R (B220), CD49b (DX5), CD105, Anti-MHC-class II, Ter-119, and TCRγ/δ.Yes*CD8a+ T Cell Isolation Kit, mouse
*Automation options range from fully automated benchtop solutions such as the autoMACS® Pro Separator to high-throughput platforms such as the MultiMACS™ Cell24 Separator Plus or MultiMACS X
CD8a (Ly-2) MicroBeads, mouse, were developed for positive selection or depletion of mouse CD8+ T cells from spleen and lymphoid tissue single-cell suspensions. With only 13.5 minutes processing time from single-cell suspension to target cells, they offer the fastest way to isolate CD8+ T cells without activation or any other effect on cell biology. The non-target cell fraction can be used for a further separation round to isolate other subsets.
CD8a (Ly-2) MicroBeads, mouse
Before separation
After separation

Fast isolation of CD8+ T cells. A single-cell suspension from mouse spleen was prepared using the gentleMACS Dissociator. CD8a+ T cells were isolated from this single-cell suspension using the CD8a (Ly-2) MicroBeads, an LS Column, and a QuadroMACS™ Separator. Cells were fluorescently stained with CD45-VioGreen™, CD4-VioBlue® and CD8a-PE-Vio®770, and analyzed by flow cytometry using the MACSQuant® Analyzer. Viable leukocytes were gated for analysis based on scatter signals, 7-AAD Staining Solution fluorescence, and CD45 expression.

As an alternative to positive selection by CD8a MicroBeads, the CD8a+ T Cell Isolation Kit, mouse, enables isolation of untouched CD8+ T cells from single-cell suspensions of mouse spleen and/or lymph nodes by depletion of non-CD8a+ T cells. The untouched target cell fraction can then be used for a further separation round to isolate other subsets.
CD8a+ T Cell Isolation Kit, mouse
Before separation
After separation

Effective isolation of untouched CD8+ T cells. A single-cell suspension from mouse spleen was prepared using the program m_spleen_01.01 on the gentleMACS Dissociator. CD8a+ T cells were isolated from this single-cell suspension using the CD8a+ T Cell Isolation Kit, an LS Column, and a MidiMACS™ Separator. Cells were fluorescently stained with the MC CD8a T Cell Cocktail and analyzed by flow cytometry using the MACSQuant Analyzer. Cell debris and dead cells were excluded from the analysis based on scatter signals and propidium iodide fluorescence.

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2.3.2 Isolation of naïve/memory  CD8+ T cells
At a glance: Kits and reagents for the separation of naïve/memory CD8+ T cell subsets from spleen and lymph nodes 
Starting materialIsolation strategyCommentsAutomation Product
Single-cell suspensions from spleen and lymph nodesDepletion of non-target cellsIsolation of naive CD8+ T cells via depletion of all memory T cells, CD4+ T cells, and non-T cell typesYes*Naive CD8a+ T Cell Isolation Kit, mouse
Single-cell suspensions from spleen and lymph nodesPositive selection of target cellsCD62L (L-Selectin) is a naïve/early memory T cell marker for central memory T cells. In combination with pre-selection via the CD8a+ T Cell Isolation Kit, CD8+ central memory T cells can be separated based on CD62L expression.Yes*

CD62L MicroBeads, mouse 

(after pre-selection with CD8a+ T cell Isolation Kit, mouse)

*Automation options range from fully automated benchtop solutions such as the autoMACS® Pro Separator to high-throughput platforms such as the MultiMACS™ Cell24 Separator Plus or MultiMACS X
Specialized kits are available for the isolation of further CD8+ T cell subsets. Mouse naïve CD8+ T cells can be isolated by depletion of memory T cells, CD4+ T cells, and non-T cell types using the Naive CD8a+ T Cell Isolation Kit, mouse.
Naive CD8a+ T Cell Isolation Kit, mouse.
Unseparated fraction
Total lymphocytes
Unseparated fraction
Gated on CD3+CD8a+ T cells
Isolated naive CD8a+ T cells Total lymphocytes
Isolated naive CD8a+ T cells
Gated on CD3+CD8a+ T cells

Isolation of naïve CD8a+ T cells from mouse spleen. Naïve CD8a+ T cells were isolated from a single-cell suspension from mouse spleen using the Naive CD8a+ T Cell Isolation Kit, an LS Column, and a MidiMACS Separator. Cells were fluorescently stained with CD3ε-APC, CD8a-VioBlue, CD44-FITC,and CD62L-PE, and analyzed by flow cytometry using the MACSQuant Analyzer. Cell debris and dead cells were excluded from the analysis based on scatter signals and propidium iodide fluorescence.

2.4 Characterization of CD8+ cytotoxic T cells by flow cytometry

CD8+ T cell subsets and their differentiation status can be determined by flow cytometry based on their expression of cell surface markers, transcription factors, and the cytokines they produce. Miltenyi Biotec offers a vast portfolio of conventional and recombinant REAfinity™ antibodies and flow analysis kits for comprehensive analysis.

2.4.1 Flow cytometry panels
The following surface markers, cytokines and transcription factors can be used to identify CD8+ T cells and subsets according to their development state or subtype.
At a glance: Markers for the detection of CD8+ T cell subsets by flow cytometry
 CD8+ cytotoxic T cellsT cell development – naive vs. memory (TSCM/TCM/TEM/TRM)Activated T cellsExhausted T cells
CD3CD3CD3CD3
CD8CD4CD4CD4
CD107a (LAMP-1)CD8CD8aCD8
CD178 (FasL)CD27CD8bCD96 (TACTILE)
CD253 (TRAIL)CD28CD25 (IL2A)CD152 (CTLA-4)
IFN-γCD44CD27CD160 (NK1)
PerforinCD62LCD28CD223 (LAG-3)
Granzyme BCD69CD44CD244
TNF-αCD103CD69CD272 (BTLA)
CD127CD95 (FAS-R)CD278 (ICOS)
CD197 (CCR7)CD134 (OX40)CD279 (PD1)
CD137 (4-1BB)CD366 (TIM-3)
CD154 (CD40L)TIGIT
Ki-67VISTA
KLRG1EOMES
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2.4.2 Analysis of surface markers and cytokines

Miltenyi Biotec offers a range of solutions for the analysis of T cell-associated surface markers and cytokines:

  • MACS Antibodies are the ideal solution for the staining of T cell surface markers or the intracellular staining of cytokines.
  • MACS Cytokine Secretion Assays allow detection and enrichment of viable cytokine-secreting cells. The mouse kits are available for a large number of cytokines, including IFN-γ, IL-2, IL-4, IL-5, IL-10 and IL-17, and can be used for further characterization of T cell subsets.
  • The mouse MACSPlex Cytokine 10 Kits are used for multiplex analysis of secreted cytokines in serum and cell culture supernatants using a standard flow cytometer. Cytokines that can be analyzed in a single sample include: GM-CSF, IFN-γ, IL-2, IL-4, IL-5, IL-10, IL-12p70, IL-17A, IL-23, and TNF-α.
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Principle of the Cytokine Secretion Assay – Cell Enrichment and Detection Kits.

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Principle of MACSPlex Assays. Samples containing unknown levels of analytes are incubated with the antibody-coated MACSPlex (MPx) Capture Beads, and analytes bind to the specific antibody. A Detection Reagent, composed of a cocktail of APC-conjugated antibodies specific for the analytes, is added. Consequently, sandwich complexes are formed between the MPx Capture Bead, the analyte and the Detection Reagent. These complexes can be analyzed based on the fluorescence characteristics of both the MPx Capture Bead and the Detection Reagent. Standards of known quantities of given analytes are provided with the kit and are used for the quantification of the analytes within the unknown samples.

2.5 Cell culture of CD8+ cytotoxic T cells

The Miltenyi Biotec cell culture and stimulation portfolio offers a specialized and versatile range of culture media and reagents for the stimulation, activation/expansion, and differentiation of T cells.
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Cell culture

2.5.1 Cultivation, activation, and expansion of T cells
At a glance: Kits and reagents for the cultivation, activation, and expansion of T cells
UseCommentsProduct
Culture mediumOptimized T cell media without serum or animal-derived components. Also available in MACS GMP grade and with or without phenol red.TexMACS™ Medium
SupplementConsistent, high-quality recombinant cytokines for successful cell culture. Available in premium, research and MACS GMP grades.MACS Cytokines
StimulationCell-sized activation beads (‘artificial APCs’) loaded with activating CD3 and CD28 antibodies.T Cell Activation/Expansion Kit, mouse
StimulationIn vitro T cell activation and expansion CD3ε pure – functional grade, mouse
CD28 pure – functional grade, mouse

Miltenyi Biotec offers high-quality recombinant cytokines for cell culture, as well as reagents for polyclonal stimulation, such as the T Cell Activation/Expansion Kit, mouse. This kit employs large, cell-sized particles loaded with biotinylated antibodies to activate and expand primary cells. The particles mimic antigen-presenting cells and, when loaded with CD3 and CD28 antibodies and applied in a specific bead-to-cell ratio, lead to efficient T cell activation. Different T cell Activation/Expansion Kits are available for the stimulation of T cells as well as Tregs with mouse, human and non-human primate origin.

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Efficient expansion of T cells. Expansion rates of human and mouse CD4+ and CD8+ T cells over the course of several days after activation and expansion with the respective T Cell Activation/Expansion Kit.

MACS Cytokines are available in three different grades – research, premium, and MACS GMP grade – to provide best flexibility in any assay setup. Notably, premium-grade MACS Cytokines exhibit well-defined biological activities, normalized to international reference standards (IU/mg), that allow exact unit dosing for reproducible results without laborious pre-testing.

Finally, the antibodies CD3e and CD28 pure – functional grade, mouse are suitable for in vitro T cell activation and expansion. The CD3e (145-2C11) and CD28 (37.51) antibodies recognize the respective mouse receptors. Via receptor binding, a stimulatory signal is transferred that, in combination with additional cytokines (e.g., IL-2), leads to the activation and expansion of T cells.

3 T cells from non-lymphoid tissues

Mouse T cells can also be obtained from non-lymphoid tissue. Miltenyi Biotec offers a variety of solutions for the preparation of non-lymphoid mouse tissue as well as the subsequent separation, cultivation, and analysis of the respective T cell populations.

3.1 Cell subsets, frequencies, and marker expression

Depending on the respective organ and the inflammatory context, T cell frequencies are highly variable in non-lymphoid tissue. Furthermore, T cells vary in the expression of certain surface markers, such as homing receptors, adhesion molecules, and chemokine receptors, with regard to their tissue tropism. Although the expression of those markers somewhat depends on the specific T  cell subtype and differentiation status, certain receptors, especially in memory T cells, can be defined as hallmarks for tissue tropism.

For the flow cytometry analysis of tissue-derived T cells, Miltenyi Biotec offers comprehensive panels of antibodies corresponding to the markers indicated in the table above.
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3.2 Sample preparation of different tissues

Tissues must be dissociated into a single-cell suspension for many downstream applications, including isolation of cell subpopulations, cell culture, or flow cytometry analysis. The combination of mechanical dissociation and enzymatic treatment based on the gentleMACS  Octo Dissociator with Heaters and specific Tissue Dissociation Kits enables reproducible T cell isolation. T cells can be obtained with excellent yield, high viability rate, and preserved cell epitopes even from hard-to-process tissues, including lamina propria, lung, liver and tumor. For details, see chapter Mouse cell sources.