The potential for self-reactive T cells to cause autoimmune disease is held in check by Foxp3(+) regulatory T cells (Tregs), essential mediators of peripheral immunological tolerance. Tregs have the capacity to suppress multiple branches of the immune system, tightly controlling the different subsets of effector T cells across multiple different tissue environments. Recent genetic experiments have found mutations that disrupt specific Treg: effector T cell relationships, leading to the possibility that subsets of Tregs are required to suppress each subset of effector T cells. Here we review the environmental factors and mechanisms that allow Tregs to suppress specific subsets of effector T cells, and find that a parsimonious explanation of the genetic data can be made without invoking Treg subsets. Instead, Tregs show a functional and chemotactic plasticity based on microenvironmental influences that allows the common pool of cells to suppress multiple distinct immune responses.
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