Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) restriction is the cardinal feature of T cell antigen recognition and is thought to be intrinsic to αβ T cell receptor (TCR) structure because of germline-encoded residues that impose MHC specificity. Here, we analyzed αβTCRs from T cells that had not undergone MHC-specific thymic selection. Instead of recognizing peptide-MHC complexes, the two αβTCRs studied here resembled antibodies in recognizing glycosylation-dependent conformational epitopes on a native self-protein, CD155, and they did so with high affinity independently of MHC molecules. Ligand recognition was via the αβTCR combining site and involved the identical germline-encoded residues that have been thought to uniquely impose MHC specificity, demonstrating that these residues do not only promote MHC binding. This study demonstrates that, without MHC-specific thymic selection, αβTCRs can resemble antibodies in recognizing conformational epitopes on MHC-independent ligands.
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