Background: Adaptive immune responses to newly encountered pathogens depend on the mobilization of antigen-specific clonotypes from a vastly diverse pool of naive T cells. Using recent advances in immune repertoire sequencing technologies, models of the immune receptor rearrangement process, and a database of annotated T cell receptor (TCR) sequences with known specificities, we explored the baseline frequencies of T cells specific for defined human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I-restricted epitopes in healthy individuals.
Methods: We used a database of TCR sequences with known antigen specificities and a probabilistic TCR rearrangement model to estimate the baseline frequencies of TCRs specific to distinct antigens epitopespecificT-cells. We verified our estimates using a publicly available collection of TCR repertoires from healthy individuals. We also interrogated a database of immunogenic and non-immunogenic peptides is used to link baseline T-cell frequencies with epitope immunogenicity.
Results: Our findings revealed a high degree of variability in the prevalence of T cells specific for different antigens that could be explained by the physicochemical properties of the corresponding HLA class I-bound peptides. The occurrence of certain rearrangements was influenced by ancestry and HLA class I restriction, and umbilical cord blood samples contained higher frequencies of common pathogen-specific TCRs. We also identified a quantitative link between specific T cell frequencies and the immunogenicity of cognate epitopes presented by defined HLA class I molecules.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that the population frequencies of specific T cells are strikingly non-uniform across epitopes that are known to elicit immune responses. This inference leads to a new definition of epitope immunogenicity based on specific TCR frequencies, which can be estimated with a high degree of accuracy in silico, thereby providing a novel framework to integrate computational and experimental genomics with basic and translational research efforts in the field of T cell immunology.
Keywords: Antigen; Immune repertoire; Immunogenicity; T cell receptor.