The interaction of TCR, antigen, and MHC complex has been analyzed using synthetic peptide antigens and a series of single amino acid-substituted analogues. Two similar antigens, mouse cytochrome c (mcyt c) and pigeon cytochrome c (pcyt c), elicit T cell responses in strains of mice bearing MHC class II Ek beta Ek alpha (B10.A), Eb beta Ek alpha [B10.A(5R)], and Es beta Ek alpha [B10.S(9R)]. The immunogenic regions of these antigens are located in the peptide sequence p88-104 for pcyt c and m88-103 for mcyt c. The limited T cell repertoire for these antigens is comprised of four groups of T cell phenotypes that have very few differences in their TCR gene make up. In this paper, we examine the diversity in their fine specificity for each of the antigens, m88-103 and p88-104, complexed with each of the I-Ek haplotypes. Epitopes, i.e., residues that interact with the TCR, and agretopes, i.e., residues in the MHC-binding site, were assigned for the two peptide antigens in the presence of APC bearing E beta kEk alpha, Eb beta Ek alpha, or Eb beta Ek alpha using T cell hybridomas of the phenotypes I, IIIa, and IV. From our results, we conclude that first, the substitution of any residue between 95 and 104 of the cytochrome c peptide changed the antigenic potency of the peptide for at least one of the hybridomas. Second, each T cell type has a different recognition pattern of epitopes and agretopes for a particular antigen-MHC complex, thus, ruling out a static model of T cell recognition, which assigns certain, invariant agretopic residues to the peptide by which it interacts with the MHC molecule independently of the TCR. Third, the same T cell hybridoma responded to the antigens differently when presented on various MHC molecules, implying that overall changes in the MHC groove, as displayed by the three haplotypes, may affect the efficiency in binding the peptide. Fourth, since most of the residues are used as epitopes by at least one of the T cell specificities, the peptide appears to be recognized in a different conformation by each T cell hybridoma phenotype; and, finally, the epitopic and agretopic residues do not segregate, for any one of the T cell specificities, in such a way that suggests they are recognized in a helical conformation. In summary, our results suggest that a single peptide may generate diversity in the T cell response by virtue of its conformational flexibility within the TCR-MHC-antigen complex.

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