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J Immunol. 1999 Feb 15;162(4):2073-80.

Serial TCR engagement and down-modulation by peptide:MHC molecule ligands: relationship to the quality of individual TCR signaling events.

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  • 1Lymphocyte Biology Section, Laboratory of Immunology, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


In the present study, we examined the relationships among quantitative aspects of TCR engagement as measured by receptor down-modulation, functional responses, and biochemical signaling events using both mouse and human T cell clones. For T cells from both species, ligands that are more potent in inducing functional responses promote TCR down-modulation more efficiently than weaker ligands. At low ligand density, the number of down-modulated TCR exceeds the number of available ligands by as much as 80-100:1 in the optimal human case, confirming the previous description of serial ligand engagement of TCR (Valitutti, et al. 1995. Nature 375:148-151). A previously unappreciated relationship involving TCR down-modulation, the pattern of proximal TCR signaling, and the extent of serial engagement was revealed by analyzing different ligands for the same TCR. Functionally, more potent ligands induce a higher proportion of fully tyrosine phosphorylated zeta-chains and a greater amount of phosphorylated ZAP-70 than less potent ligands, and the number of TCR down-modulated per available ligand is higher with ligands showing this full agonist-like pattern. The large number of receptors showing partial zeta phosphorylation following exposure to weak ligands indicates that the true extent of TCR engagement and signaling, and thus the amount of sequential engagement, is underestimated by measurement of TCR down-modulation alone, which depends on full receptor activation. These data provide new insight into T cell activation by revealing a clear relationship among intrinsic ligand quality, signal amplification by serial engagement, functional T cell responses, and observable TCR clearance from the cell surface.

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