Invariant chain (Ii) associates with newly synthesized class II molecules in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), an interaction that has been shown to interfere with peptide binding to class II molecules. The class II-associated invariant chain peptide (CLIP) region (residues 81-104) of Ii is believed to mediate this inhibition by engaging the binding domain of class II like an antigenic peptide. Together, these findings have given rise to a model in which CLIP association with the class II groove acts to prevent inappropriate presentation of peptides imported into the ER for association with major histocompatibility complex class I molecules. However, the properties of class II molecules synthesized by cells lacking coexpressed Ii are at least superficially inconsistent with this paradigm in that they do not show clear evidence of peptide acquisition. At the same time, we have previously shown the shortest form of Ii still containing CLIP to play an essential role in regulation of early class II molecule assembly and transport in the secretory pathway. Using covalent peptide technology, we now show that occupancy of the class II binding site in the ER regulates class II trafficking to the Golgi complex, an event that is the locus of the major defect in cells of Ii-deficient mice. These data argue that CLIP occupies the class II binding site, not to prevent interaction with short peptides meant for class I, but rather to maintain the structural integrity of class II molecules that are labile without engaged binding regions, and that would also associate with intact proteins in the ER if left unoccupied. By these means, CLIP occupancy of the class II binding site promotes effective export of useful class II molecules for endocytic peptide acquisition.

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