An increasing amount of evidence has shown that epitopes restricted to MHC class I molecules and recognized by CTL need not be encoded in a primary open reading frame (ORF). Such epitopes have been demonstrated after stop codons, in alternative reading frames (RF) and within introns. We have used a series of frameshifts (FS) introduced into the Influenza A/PR/8 /34 nucleoprotein (NP) gene to confirm the previous in vitro observations of cryptic epitope expression, and show that they are sufficiently expressed to prime immune responses in vivo. This presentation is not due to sub-dominant epitopes, transcription from cryptic promoters beyond the point of the FS, or internal initiation of translation. By introducing additional mutations to the construct exhibiting the most potent presentation, we have identified initiation codon readthrough (termed scanthrough here, where the scanning ribosome bypasses the conventional initiation codon, initiating translation further downstream) as the likely mechanism of epitope production. Further mutational analysis demonstrated that, while it should operate during the expression of wild-type (WT) protein, scanthrough does not provide a major source of processing substrate in our system. These findings suggest (i) that the full array of self- and pathogen-derived epitopes available during thymic selection and infection has not been fully appreciated and (ii) that cryptic epitope expression should be considered when the specificity of a CTL response cannot be identified or in therapeutic situations when conventional CTL targets are limited, as may be the case with latent viral infections and transformed cells. Finally, initiation codon readthrough provides a plausible explanation for the presentation of exocytic proteins by MHC class I molecules.

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