Differential segregation in a cell-cell contact interface: the dynamics of the immunological synapse

Biophys J. 2002 Oct;83(4):1784-96. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3495(02)73944-1.


Receptor-ligand couples in the cell-cell contact interface between a T cell and an antigen-presenting cell form distinct geometric patterns and undergo spatial rearrangement within the contact interface. Spatial segregation of the antigen and adhesion receptors occurs within seconds of contact, central aggregation of the antigen receptor then occurring over 1-5 min. This structure, called the immunological synapse, is becoming a paradigm for localized signaling. However, the mechanisms driving its formation, in particular spatial segregation, are currently not understood. With a reaction diffusion model incorporating thermodynamics, elasticity, and reaction kinetics, we examine the hypothesis that differing bond lengths (extracellular domain size) is the driving force behind molecular segregation. We derive two key conditions necessary for segregation: a thermodynamic criterion on the effective bond elasticity and a requirement for the seeding/nucleation of domains. Domains have a minimum length scale and will only spontaneously coalesce/aggregate if the contact area is small or the membrane relaxation distance large. Otherwise, differential attachment of receptors to the cytoskeleton is required for central aggregation. Our analysis indicates that differential bond lengths have a significant effect on synapse dynamics, i.e., there is a significant contribution to the free energy of the interaction, suggesting that segregation by differential bond length is important in cell-cell contact interfaces and the immunological synapse.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigen-Presenting Cells / metabolism
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Cell Communication*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cytoskeleton / metabolism
  • Kinetics
  • Leukocyte Common Antigens / biosynthesis
  • Ligands
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Chemical
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Signal Transduction
  • Synapses / physiology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Thermodynamics


  • Ligands
  • Leukocyte Common Antigens