Activation of naive T cells by antigen-presenting cells (APCs) is an essential step in mounting an adaptive immune response. It is known that antigen recognition and T cell receptor (TCR) signaling depend on forces applied by the T cell actin cytoskeleton, but until recently, the underlying mechanisms have been poorly defined. Here, we review recent advances in the field, which show that specific actin-dependent structures contribute to the process in distinct ways. In essence, T cell priming involves a tug-of-war between the cytoskeletons of the T cell and the APC, where the actin cytoskeleton serves as a mechanical intermediate that integrates force-dependent signals. We consider each of the relevant actin-rich T cell structures separately and address how they work together at the topologically and temporally complex cell–cell interface. In addition, we address how this mechanobiology can be incorporated into canonical immunological models to improve how these models explain T cell sensitivity and antigenic specificity.

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