Although thyroglobulin (Tg), the thyroid prohormone, is well known as a T cell dependent autoantigen in human and experimental autoimmune thyroid disease, very little is known about the molecular basis of Tg recognition by T cells. In this paper, we have characterized the epitopes recognized by two clonotypically distinct, murine Tg autoreactive T cell hybridomas, CH9 and ADA2. In vitro iodination of a Tg preparation which was deficient in in vivo organified iodine was first used to confirm our previous observation that these T cells recognize iodination-related epitopes in the Tg molecule. Affinity chromatography of tryptic peptides derived from normally iodinated human Tg revealed that these epitopes were exclusively located in thyroxine (T4) containing peptides. Through the use of synthetic T4-containing peptides, representing the four major hormonogenic sites in Tg, we demonstrated that both CH9 and ADA2 recognize an epitope containing the T4 at position 2553 in human Tg. Sets of overlapping 5mer to 12mer peptides around this T4 showed that the most potent peptide was a 9mer beginning at Asp 2551. The T4 was shown to be a critical residue, since its replacement with any of the 20 naturally occurring amino acids produced only nonstimulatory peptides. Since the T cell hybridomas could also be stimulated by major histocompatibility complex class II positive (interferon-gamma-treated) thyroid epithelial cells in vitro, and their parent T cell lines can induce thyroiditis on adoptive transfer, the T4-containing Tg sequence described here is implicated as a pathogenic epitope in murine thyroid autoimmunity.

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