Despite the low affinity of the T-cell antigen receptor (TCR) for its peptide/major histocompatibility complex (pMHC) ligand, T cells are very sensitive to their antigens. This paradox can be resolved if we consider that the TCR may be organized into pre-existing oligomers or nanoclusters. Such structures could improve antigen recognition by increasing the functional affinity (avidity) of the TCR-pMHC interaction and by allowing cooperativity between individual TCRs. Up to approximately 20 TCRs become tightly apposed in these nanoclusters, often in a linear manner, and such structures could reflect a relatively generalized phenomenon: the non-random concentration of membrane receptors in specific areas of the plasma membrane known as protein islands. The association of TCRs into nanoclusters can explain the enhanced kinetics of the pMHC-TCR interaction in two dimensional versus three dimensional systems, but also their existence calls for a revision of the TCR triggering models based on pMHC-induced TCR clustering. Interestingly, the B-cell receptor and the FcεRI have also been shown to form nanoclusters, suggesting that the formation of pre-existing receptor oligomers could be widely used in the immune system.
© 2012 John Wiley & Sons A/S. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.