We have investigated the level of TCR occupancy required to elicit different biological responses in human CTL clones specific for an influenza matrix peptide. Specific cytotoxicity could be detected at extremely low peptide concentrations (10(-12) to 10(-15) M). However, IFN-gamma production, responsiveness to IL-2 and Ca++ fluxes were observed only at peptide concentrations > 10(-9) M, while autonomous proliferation required even higher peptide concentrations. In parallel experiments we measured TCR downregulation to estimate the number of TCRs triggered. We observed that at low peptide concentrations, where only cytotoxicity is triggered, TCR downregulation was hardly detectable. Conversely, induction of IFN-gamma production and proliferation required triggering of at least 20-50% of TCRs. Taken together these results indicate that a single CTL can graduate different biological responses as a function of antigen concentration and that killing of the specific target does not necessarily result in full activation.

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