Superantigens, in association with class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules, activate T cells bearing particular beta chain variable domains of the T cell receptor (TCR). Unlike conventional peptide antigens, superantigens bind as intact proteins to TCR and MHC molecules outside their peptide binding sites. To characterize these interactions at the molecular level, random point mutations were generated in the gene encoding toxic shock syndrome toxin 1, a bacterial superantigen associated with toxic shock syndrome. Functionally impaired mutants were identified based on their lack of murine and human T cell stimulatory activities, and experiments analyzing binding to human histocompatibility leukocyte antigen-DR molecules differentiated residues involved in MHC from TCR binding. The results showed that the great majority of mutations are clustered in two distinct regions of the toxic shock syndrome toxin 1 molecule. The class II MHC binding site is located in the hydrophobic region of the NH2-terminal domain, and the TCR binding site is primarily in the major central groove of the COOH-terminal domain. These studies provide insight into the interactions necessary for superantigen-mediated disease in humans.

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