An immunological fingerprint differentiates muscular lymphatics from arteries and veins.
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The principal function of the lymphatic system is to transport lymph from the interstitium to the nodes and then from the nodes to the blood. In doing so lymphatics play important roles in fluid homeostasis, macromolecular/antigen transport and immune cell trafficking. To better understand the genes that contribute to their unique physiology, we compared the transcriptional profile of muscular lymphatics (prenodal mesenteric microlymphatics and large, postnodal thoracic duct) to axillary and mesenteric arteries and veins isolated from rats. Clustering of the differentially expressed genes demonstrated that the lymph versus blood vessel differences were more profound than between blood vessels, particularly the microvessels. Gene ontology functional category analysis indicated that microlymphatics were enriched in antigen processing/presentation, IgE receptor signaling, catabolic processes, translation and ribosome; while they were diminished in oxygen transport, regulation of cell proliferation, glycolysis and inhibition of adenylate cyclase activity by G-proteins. We evaluated the differentially expressed microarray genes/products by qPCR and/or immunofluorescence. Immunofluorescence documented that multiple MHC class II antigen presentation proteins were highly expressed by an antigen-presenting cell (APC) type found resident within the lymphatic wall. These APCs also expressed CD86, a co-stimulatory protein necessary for T-cell activation. We evaluated the distribution and phenotype of APCs within the pre and postnodal lymphatic network. This study documents a novel population of APCs resident within the walls of muscular, prenodal lymphatics that indicates novel roles in antigen sampling and immune responses. In conclusion, these prenodal lymphatics exhibit a unique profile that distinguishes them from blood vessels and highlights the role of the lymphatic system as an immunovascular system linking the parenchymal interstitium, lymph nodes and the blood.