Degenerate T-cell recognition of peptides on MHC molecules creates large holes in the T-cell repertoire

PLoS Comput Biol. 2012;8(3):e1002412. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002412. Epub 2012 Mar 1.


The cellular immune system screens peptides presented by host cells on MHC molecules to assess if the cells are infected. In this study we examined whether the presented peptides contain enough information for a proper self/nonself assessment by comparing the presented human (self) and bacterial or viral (nonself) peptides on a large number of MHC molecules. For all MHC molecules tested, only a small fraction of the presented nonself peptides from 174 species of bacteria and 1000 viral proteomes ([Formula: see text]0.2%) is shown to be identical to a presented self peptide. Next, we use available data on T-cell receptor-peptide-MHC interactions to estimate how well T-cells distinguish between similar peptides. The recognition of a peptide-MHC by the T-cell receptor is flexible, and as a result, about one-third of the presented nonself peptides is expected to be indistinguishable (by T-cells) from presented self peptides. This suggests that T-cells are expected to remain tolerant for a large fraction of the presented nonself peptides, which provides an explanation for the "holes in the T-cell repertoire" that are found for a large fraction of foreign epitopes. Additionally, this overlap with self increases the need for efficient self tolerance, as many self-similar nonself peptides could initiate an autoimmune response. Degenerate recognition of peptide-MHC-I complexes by T-cells thus creates large and potentially dangerous overlaps between self and nonself.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins / chemistry
  • Bacterial Proteins / immunology*
  • Binding Sites
  • Computer Simulation
  • Epitope Mapping*
  • HLA Antigens / chemistry
  • HLA Antigens / immunology*
  • Models, Chemical
  • Models, Immunological*
  • Protein Binding
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / chemistry
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / immunology*
  • Viral Proteins / chemistry
  • Viral Proteins / immunology*


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • HLA Antigens
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell
  • Viral Proteins