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J Immunol. 2010 Oct 1;185(7):4238-51. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.1001494. Epub 2010 Aug 30.

Coevolution of killer cell Ig-like receptors with HLA-C to become the major variable regulators of human NK cells.

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  • 1Immunology Program, School of Medicine, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.


Interactions between HLA class I and killer cell Ig-like receptors (KIRs) diversify human NK cell responses. Dominant KIR ligands are the C1 and C2 epitopes of MHC-C, a young locus restricted to humans and great apes. C1- and C1-specific KIRs evolved first, being present in orangutan and functionally like their human counterparts. Orangutans lack C2 and C2-specific KIRs, but have a unique C1+C2-specific KIR that binds equally to C1 and C2. A receptor with this specificity likely provided the mechanism by which C2-KIR interaction evolved from C1-KIR while avoiding a nonfunctional intermediate, that is, either orphan receptor or ligand. Orangutan inhibitory MHC-C-reactive KIRs pair with activating receptors of identical avidity and specificity, contrasting with the selective attenuation of human activating KIRs. The orangutan C1-specific KIR reacts or cross-reacts with all four polymorphic epitopes (C1, C2, Bw4, and A3/11) recognized by human KIRs, revealing their structural commonality. Saturation mutagenesis at specificity-determining position 44 demonstrates that KIRs are inherently restricted to binding just these four epitopes, either individually or in combination. This restriction frees most HLA-A and HLA-B variants to be dedicated TCR ligands, not subject to conflicting pressures from the NK cell and T cell arms of the immune response.

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