To understand the effect of human MHC class II polymorphism on antigen recognition, we analyzed the memory T cell response to three tetanus toxin epitopes defined by three short synthetic peptides (p2, p4 and p30). We found that p2 and p30 are universally immunogenic, since they are recognized by all primed donors, irrespective of their MHC haplotypes. The analysis of specific clones indicates that both peptides are very promiscuous in their capacity to bind to class II. p30 can be recognized in association with DRw11(5), 7, 9 and with DPw2 and DPw4, while p2 can be recognized in association with DR1, DRw15(2), DRw18 (3), DR4Dw4, DRw11(5), DRw13(w6), DR7, DRw8, DR9, DRw52a and DRw52b. On the contrary, the third peptide, p4, can be recognized by only half of the donors in association with only DRw52a and DRw52c.
Analysis of truncated peptides shows that p30 contains three distinct epitopes, each recognized in association with different class II molecules. Therefore, the restriction specificity is already set at the level of the peptide-MHC complex and, in all cases, T cells discriminate p30 bound to different class II molecules. On the contrary, p2 contains only one epitope, which is recognized in association with all DR molecules. In this case we found two different restriction patterns. Some clones are monogamous, since they recognize the peptide in association with one DR allele, while others are promiscuous, since they recognize the peptide in association with several different DR molecules. Thus, in this case, the restriction specificity is also set at the level of the T cell receptor.
We suggest that both the promiscuous binding of peptides and the promiscuous recognition by T cells are dependent on the particular structure of the DR molecules, having a monomorphic α chain associated with a polymorphic β chain.