The preferential recognition of certain amino acid sequences from foreign protein antigens by T cells is referred to as T cell epitope immunodominance. To determine the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, we have studied the correlation between the interaction of a series of synthetic peptides encompassing the entire hen egg-white lysozyme (HEL) sequence with class II molecules of the H-2k haplotype, and T cell responsiveness to these peptides. After HEL priming, three immunodominant T cell epitopes were found: two, included in the HEL sequences 51-61 and 112-129, were recognized in association with I-Ak molecules, and one, included in sequence 1-18, in association with I-Ek molecules. Accordingly, these peptides bound to the appropriate class II molecule, as demonstrated by competition for antigen presentation. Several other HEL peptides, although capable of associating with class II molecules, were not immunodominant. The absence of immunodominance has been shown to arise by three different mechanisms: (a) competition by an immunodominant peptide for presentation in vivo, (b) failure to generate the peptide during antigen processing, and (c) an inherently poor capacity of the T cell repertoire to respond to a particular peptide-MHC complex.

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