T cells play a pivotal role in clearing intracellular pathogens and combatting tumours. Upon infection, naïve CD8+
T cells differentiate into effector and memory cells, and this program is underscored by large-scale and coordinated changes in the chromatin architecture and gene expression. Importantly, recent evidence demonstrates that the epigenetic mechanisms that regulate the capacity for rapid effector function of memory T cells are shared by innate immune cells such as natural killer (NK) cells. Thus, it appears that the crucial difference between innate and adaptive immunity is the presence of the naïve state. This important distinction raises an intriguing new hypothesis, that the naïve state was evolutionary installed to restrain a default program of effector and memory differentiation in response to antigen recognition. We argue that the hallmark of adaptive T immunity is therefore the naïve program, which actively maintains CD8+
T cell quiescence until receipt of appropriate activation signals. In this review, we examine the mechanistic control of naïve CD8+
T cell quiescence and summarise the multiple levels of restraint imposed in naïve cells in to limit spontaneous and inappropriate activation. This includes epigenetic mechanisms and transcription factor (TF) regulation of gene expression, in addition to novel inhibitory receptors, abundance of RNA, and protein degradation.
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