Epitope density has a profound impact on B cell responses to particulate Ags, the molecular mechanisms of which remain to be explored. To dissect the role of epitope density in this process, we have synthesized a series of liposomal particles, similar to the size of viruses, that display a model self-antigen peptide at defined surface densities. Immunization of C57BL/6J mice using these particles elicited both IgM and class-switched IgG1, IgG2b, and IgG3 autoreactive Abs that depended on the epitope density. In C57BL/6 gene knockout mice lacking either functional TCRs or MHC class II molecules on B cells, the liposomal particles also elicited IgM, IgG1, IgG2b, and IgG3 responses that were comparable in magnitudes to wild-type mice, suggesting that this B cell response was independent of cognate T cell help. Notably, the titer of the IgG in wild-type animals could be increased by more than 200-fold upon replacement of liposomes with bacteriophage Qβ virus-like particles that displayed the same self-antigen peptide at comparable epitope densities. This enhancement was lost almost completely in gene knockout mice lacking either TCRs or MHC class II molecules on B cells. In conclusion, epitope density above a threshold on particulate Ags can serve as a stand-alone signal to trigger secretion of autoreactive and class-switched IgG in vivo in the absence of cognate T cell help or any adjuvants. The extraordinary immunogenicity of Qβ viral-like particles relies, in large part, on their ability to effectively recruit T cell help after B cell activation.
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