Previous studies (1) have indicated that the repertoire of murine T cells specific for a potentially complex protein antigen is in fact specific for a limited number of antigenic epitopes on that antigen in association with a given Ia molecule. Since those studies generally analyzed responses to antigens that differ in only a few amino acids from homologous murine molecules, it was possible that tolerance to self proteins was responsible for the limited T cell repertoire seen in responses to closely related proteins. It was therefore of interest to determine whether T cell recognition of a structurally and phylogenetically more distant protein molecule would also show specificity for a limited number of immunodominant peptides on that molecule. A series of experiments was designed to study the antigen fine specificity and MHC restriction of T cell clones specific for the bacterially derived antigen staphylococcal nuclease (Nase). T cell clones generated in (H-2b X H-2a)F1 (B6AF1) T cells were shown to be specific for Nase and to be restricted by either Ab alpha Ab beta or Ek alpha Ek beta. The fine specificity of these clones was then analyzed using cyanogen bromide and tryptic fragments and a series of overlapping 20-amino-acid synthetic peptides corresponding to and spanning the entire sequence of the Nase molecule. Two Ab alpha Ab beta-restricted clones were highly responsive to peptide 91-110, and not to other synthetic Nase peptides. In contrast, seven Ek alpha Ek beta-restricted clones were consistently responsive to peptide 81-100 and not to 91-110 or to other Nase peptides. Certain of these Ek alpha Ek beta-restricted T cells expressed an interesting crossreactivity, in that they responded to peptide 51-70 as well as to 81-100, although the response to 51-70 was characterized by a markedly shifted dose-response curve, indicating a reduced efficiency of activation by this peptide. Analysis of the amino acid sequences of these regions indicates that this unexpected crossreaction may have a structural basis. A single Nase-specific T cell line generated from BALB/c T cells was, in contrast to any of the B6AF1 clones studied, responsive only to peptide 61-80 and not to other peptides, including 81-100 or 91-110. Collectively, these findings show that Nase-specific T cells are responsive to discrete Nase peptides. Moreover, the present findings suggest that in T cell recognition of a complex and highly foreign protein antigen, a limited number of peptide epitopes are preferentially recognized by T cells in association with a given Ia molecule.

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