The T cell receptor (TCR) and CD8 bind peptide-major histocompatibility complex (pMHC) glycoproteins to initiate adaptive immune responses, yet the trimolecular binding kinetics at the T cell membrane is unknown. By using a micropipette adhesion frequency assay, we show that this kinetics has two stages. The first consists of TCR-dominant binding to agonist pMHC. This triggers a second stage consisting of a step increase in adhesion after a one second delay. The second-stage binding requires Src family kinase activity to initiate CD8 binding to the same pMHC engaged by the TCR. This induced trimeric-cooperative interaction enhances adhesion synergistically to favor potent ligands, which further amplifies discrimination. Our data reveal a TCR-CD8 positive-feedback loop involved in initial signaling steps that is sensitive to a single pMHC is rapid, reversible, synergistic, and peptide discriminative.
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