Rapid clonal expansion of antigen specific T cells is a fundamental feature of adaptive immune responses. Clonal expansion is thought to be programmed upon priming of a single naive T cell. However, the actual speed of cell divisions in such an emerging "T cell family" has never been measured.
Rapid clonal expansion of antigen specific T cells is a fundamental feature of adaptive immune responses. It enables the outgrowth of an individual T cell into thousands of clonal descendants that diversify into short-lived effectors and long-lived memory cells. Clonal expansion is thought to be programmed upon priming of a single naive T cell and then executed by homogenously fast divisions of all of its descendants. However, the actual speed of cell divisions in such an emerging "T cell family" has never been measured with single-cell resolution. Here, we utilize continuous live-cell imaging in vitro to track the division speed and genealogical connections of all descendants derived from a single naive CD8+ T cell throughout up to ten divisions of activation-induced proliferation. This comprehensive mapping of T cell family trees identifies a short burst phase, in which division speed is homogenously fast and maintained independent of external cytokine availability or continued T cell receptor stimulation. Thereafter, however, division speed diversifies and model-based computational analysis using a novel Bayesian inference framework for tree-structured data reveals a segregation into heritably fast and slow dividing branches. This diversification of division speed is preceded already during the burst phase by variable expression of the interleukin-2 receptor alpha chain. Later it is accompanied by selective re-expression of memory marker CD62L in slower dividing branches. Taken together, these data demonstrate that T cell clonal expansion is structured into subsequent burst and diversification phases the latter of which coincides with specification of memory vs. effector fate.