Using antigen-specific T cell clones and peptide-pulsed antigen-presenting cells (APCs) we investigated the mechanisms that lead to sustained signaling, known to be required for activation of effector function. Four lines of evidence indicate that the T cell actin cytoskeleton plays a crucial role in T cell activation by antigen-pulsed APCs, but is not required when T cell receptor (TCR) is cross-linked by soluble antibodies. First, addition of antibodies to the major histocompatibility complex molecules recognized by the TCR aborts the ongoing intracellular calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i) increase in performed T-APC conjugates, indicating that the sustained signaling requires the continuous occupancy of TCR. Second, time-lapse image recording shows that T lymphocytes conjugated to peptide-pulsed APCs undergo a sustained [Ca2+]i increase, which is accompanied by the formation of a large and changing area of contact between the two opposing membranes. Third, drugs that disrupt the actin cytoskeleton, Cytochalasin D and and C2 Clostridium botulinum toxin induce a rapid block of [Ca2+]i rise, coincident with a block of the cyclic changes in T cell shape. Finally, the addition of Cytochalasin D or of anti-MHC antibodies to preformed conjugates inhibits interferon gamma production in an 1-antigen dose- and time-dependent fashion. These results identify T cell actin cytoskeleton as a major motor for sustaining signal transduction and possibly for driving TCR cross-linking and offer an explanation for how T cells equipped with low affinity TCR can be triggered by a small number of complexes on APCs.

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