The T-cell receptor (TCR) genes (alpha, beta, delta, and gamma) are comprised of numerous, discontinuous coding segments that somatically rearrange to produce heterodimeric cell surface TCR, either alpha/beta (90%-95% of T cells) or gamma/delta (5%-10% of T cells). With rare exceptions (eg, some neoplastic B-lymphoid proliferations), other cell types retain the germline configuration of the TCR genes without rearrangement.
The marked diversity of somatic TCR-gene rearrangements is important for normal immune functions but also serves as a valuable marker to distinguish abnormal T-cell proliferations from reactive processes. A monoclonal expansion of a T-cell population will result in the predominance of a single TCR-gene rearrangement pattern. In contrast, reactive T-cell expansions are polyclonal (or multiclonal), with no single clonotypic population predominating in the population of T cells. These distributive differences in both TCR sequence and genomic rearrangement fragment sizes can be detected by molecular techniques (ie, polymerase chain reaction) and used to determine if a population of T cells shows monoclonal or polyclonal features.