The Activation and Differentiation of Cytotoxic T Cells

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AA naïve Cytotoxid T cell has a T cell receptor and CD8. The T cell receptor binds to antigen extracted from a pathogen on the MHC class I of an infected pathogen. The CD8 stabilizes this reaction. This causes the activated CTL to release granzymes and perforins which result in the contolled destruction of the infected cell through apoptosis.
This figure illustrates the activation of a naïve (unactivated) cytotoxic T cell (CTL) by an antigen-presenting MHC I molecule on an infected body cell. Once activated, the CTL releases perforin and granzymes that invade the infected cell and induce controlled cell death, or apoptosis.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

Cytotoxic T cells (also referred to as cytotoxic T lymphocytes, or CTLs) are activated by APCs in a three-step process similar to that of helper T cells. The key difference is that the activation of cytotoxic T cells involves recognition of an antigen presented with MHC I (as opposed to MHC II) and interaction of CD8 (as opposed to CD4) with the receptor complex. After the successful co-recognition of foreign epitope and self-antigen, the production of cytokines by the APC and the cytotoxic T cell activate clonal proliferation and differentiation. Activated cytotoxic T cells can differentiate into effector cytotoxic T cells that target pathogens for destruction or memory cells that are ready to respond to subsequent exposures.

As noted, proliferation and differentiation of cytotoxic T cells is also stimulated by cytokines secreted from TH1 cells activated by the same foreign epitope. The co-stimulation that comes from these TH1 cells is provided by secreted cytokines. Although it is possible for activation of cytotoxic T cells to occur without stimulation from TH1 cells, the activation is not as effective or long-lasting.

Once activated, cytotoxic T cells serve as the effector cells of cellular immunity, recognizing and kill cells infected with intracellular pathogens through a mechanism very similar to that of NK cells. However, whereas NK cells recognize nonspecific signals of cell stress or abnormality, cytotoxic T cells recognize infected cells through antigen presentation of pathogen-specific epitopes associated with MHC I. Once an infected cell is recognized, the TCR of the cytotoxic T cell binds to the epitope and releases perforin and granzymes that destroy the infected cell. Perforin is a protein that creates pores in the target cell, and granzymes are proteases that enter the pores and induce apoptosis. This mechanism of programmed cell death is a controlled and efficient means of destroying and removing infected cells without releasing the pathogens inside to infect neighboring cells, as might occur if the infected cells were simply lysed.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: