T cells typically recognize their ligands using a defined cell biology—the scanning of their membrane microvilli (MV) to palpate their environment—while that same membrane scaffolds T cell receptors (TCRs) that can signal upon ligand binding. Chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) present both a therapeutic promise and a tractable means to study the interplay between receptor affinity, MV dynamics and T cell function. CARs are often built using single-chain variable fragments (scFvs) with far greater affinity than that of natural TCRs. We used high-resolution lattice lightsheet (LLS) and total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) imaging to visualize MV scanning in the context of variations in CAR design. This demonstrated that conventional CARs hyper-stabilized microvillar contacts relative to TCRs. Reducing receptor affinity, antigen density, and/or multiplicity of receptor binding sites normalized microvillar dynamics and synapse resolution, and effector functions improved with reduced affinity and/or antigen density, highlighting the importance of understanding the underlying cell biology when designing receptors for optimal antigen engagement.

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