Germinal center (GC) B cells evolve toward increased affinity by a Darwinian process that has been studied primarily in genetically restricted, hapten-specific responses. We explored the population dynamics of genetically diverse GC responses to two complex antigens-Bacillus anthracis protective antigen and influenza hemagglutinin-in which B cells competed both intra- and interclonally for distinct epitopes. Preferred VH rearrangements among antigen-binding, naive B cells were similarly abundant in early GCs but, unlike responses to haptens, clonal diversity increased in GC B cells as early "winners" were replaced by rarer, high-affinity clones. Despite affinity maturation, inter- and intraclonal avidities varied greatly, and half of GC B cells did not bind the immunogen but nonetheless exhibited biased VH use, V(D)J mutation, and clonal expansion comparable to antigen-binding cells. GC reactions to complex antigens permit a range of specificities and affinities, with potential advantages for broad protection.
Keywords: B cell repertoire; clonal selection; germinal center; influenza hemagglutinin; protective antigen of B. anthracis.
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