The mechanisms permitting nonpolymorphic CD1 molecules to present lipid antigens that differ considerably in polar head and aliphatic tails remain elusive. It is also unclear why hydrophobic motifs in the aliphatic tails of some antigens, which presumably embed inside CD1 pockets, contribute to determinants for T-cell recognition. The 1.9-Å crystal structure of an active complex of CD1b and a mycobacterial diacylsulfoglycolipid presented here provides some clues. Upon antigen binding, endogenous spacers of CD1b, which consist of a mixture of diradylglycerols, moved considerably within the lipid-binding groove. Spacer displacement was accompanied by F pocket closure and an extensive rearrangement of residues exposed to T-cell receptors. Such structural reorganization resulted in reduction of the A pocket capacity and led to incomplete embedding of the methyl-ramified portion of the phthioceranoyl chain of the antigen, explaining why such hydrophobic motifs are critical for T-cell receptor recognition. Mutagenesis experiments supported the functional importance of the observed structural alterations for T-cell stimulation. Overall, our data delineate a complex molecular mechanism combining spacer repositioning and ligand-induced conformational changes that, together with pocket intricacy, endows CD1b with the required molecular plasticity to present a broad range of structurally diverse antigens.
CD1b-restricted T lymphocytes recognize a large diversity of mycobacterial lipids, which differ in their hydrophilic heads and the structure of their acyl appendages. Both moieties participate in the antigenicity of lipid Ags, but the structural constraints governing binding to CD1b and generation of antigenic CD1b:lipid Ag complexes are still poorly understood. Here, we investigated the structural requirements conferring antigenicity to Mycobacterium tuberculosis sulfoglycolipid Ags using a combination of CD1b:lipid binding and T cell activation assays with both living dendritic cells and plate-bound recombinant soluble CD1b. Comparison of the antigenicity of a panel of synthetic analogs, sharing the same trehalose-sulfate polar head, but differing in the structure of their acyl tails, shows that the number of C-methyl substituents on the fatty acid, the configuration of the chiral centers, and the respective localization of the two different acyl chains on the sugar moiety govern TCR recognition and T lymphocyte activation. These studies have major implications for the design of sulfoglycolipid analogs with potential use as tuberculosis subunit vaccines.
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