Changes in the structure and function of antibodies occur during the course of an immune response due to variable (V) region gene somatic mutation and isotype switch recombination. While the end products of both these processes are now well documented, their mechanisms, timing, and regulation during clonal expansion remain unclear. Here I describe the characterization of antibodies expressed by a large number of hybridomas derived from single B cell clones at an intermediate stage of an immune response. These data provide new insights into the mechanism, relative timing, and potential of V gene mutation and isotype switching. The data suggest that somatic mutation and isotype switching are completely independent processes that may, but need not, occur simultaneously during clonal expansion. In addition, the results of this analysis demonstrate that individual B cell clones are far more efficient than previously imagined at generating and fixing particular V region somatic mutations that result in increased affinity for the eliciting epitope. Models to account for this high efficiency are discussed. Taken together with previous data, the results of this analysis also suggest that the "somatic evolution" of V region structure to a single epitope takes place in two stages; the first in which particular mutations are sustained and fixed by antigen selection in the CDR regions of the V region genes expressed in a clone over a short period of clonal expansion, and the second in which these selected CDR mutations are maintained in the growing clone, deleterious mutations are lost, and selectively neutral mutations accumulate throughout the length of V genes over long periods of clonal expansion.

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