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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Jan 1986; 83(2): 226–230.
PMCID: PMC322830

Antigenic determinants in proteins coincide with surface regions accessible to large probes (antibody domains).


We evaluated surface areas on proteins that would be accessible to contacts with large (1-nm radius) spherical probes. Such spheres are comparable in size to antibody domains that contain antigen-combining sites. We found that all the reported antigenic sites correspond to segments particularly accessible to a large sphere. The antigenic sites were also evident as the most prominently exposed regions (hills and ridges) in contour maps of the solvent-accessible (small-probe) surface. In myoglobin and cytochrome c, virtually all of the van der Waals surface is accessible to the large probe and therefore potentially antigenic; in myohemerythrin, distinct large-probe-inaccessible, and nonantigenic, surface regions are apparent. The correlation between large-sphere-accessibility and antigenicity in myoglobin, lysozyme, and cytochrome c appears to be better than that reported to exist between antigenicity and segmental flexibility; that is, surface regions that are rigid often constitute antigenic epitopes, whereas some of the flexible parts of the molecules do not appear antigenic. We propose that the primary reason why certain polypeptide-chain segments are antigenic is their exceptional surface exposure, making them readily available for contacts with antigen-combining sites. Exposure of these segments frequently results in high mobility and, in consequence, to the reported correlation between antigenicity and segmental flexibility.

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