White blood cells called T lymphocytes play critical roles in immune defense against viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and cancer cells. They are also involved in allergies/asthma due to the development of an unwanted or excessive type of immune response to substances (antigens) in our environment and in autoimmune diseases. Because T cells respond to foreign substances (antigens) in the form of peptide-major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule pairs on cell surfaces, we wish to know how such complexes interact with specific receptors to evoke the effector activities of mature T cells in the body, as well as regulate their growth, inactivation, differentiation, or death. In particular, we want to understand in molecular detail the protein-protein interactions that turn recognition of antigen by T cells into signals guiding the normal survival and effector functions of these cells, how variations in these recognition and signaling events leads to desirable versus undesirable forms of immunity, and how we can manipulate these events to augment useful immune responses and inhibit damaging ones. Our studies currently focus on biochemical regulatory pathways that help T cells discriminate between self- and foreign peptide:MHC molecule complexes, on the explicit mathematical modeling of these signaling processes in eukaryotic cells, on how the antigen receptors (TCR) of T lymphocytes are selected to provide maximally effective responses to infectious agents, and on how variations in the magnitude and quality of TCR-associated signaling events influence the qualitative nature of adaptive immune responses. We previously reported our analysis of the molecular details of two novel regulatory pathways controlling early signaling by the T cell receptor (SHP-1 phosphatase dependent negative control and MAPK mediated positive control) and a full mathematical computer description of T cell receptor (TCR) signaling that incorporates these novel regulatory pathways. Over the past two years we have focused on using the level of CD5 expression to monitor the affinity of a specific TCR for self-MHC ligands. Using a variety of methods including analysis of partial TCR-associated zeta-chain phosphorylation, we found that we could readily classify T cells according to their self-ligand affinity by this means. Using new methods for assessing the interaction of naive T cells with foreign antigen ligands in the form of oligomers of foreign peptide-MHC class II molecule complexes (pMHC tetramers), we have made the remarkable finding that the affinity of TCRs for self-ligand as determined in the thymus during positive selection directly correlates with the affinity of the T cell for foreign pMHC. In addition, in comparison to other cell surface proteins, CD5 (whose level of expression marks self-pMHC affinity of a T cell) is skewed to the right compared to a log normal distribution. These results indicate that thymic positive selection operates to maximize the affinity of the cells selected into the mature pool, up the to limit set by negative selection, and provide a strong evolutionary rationale for the process of thymic positive selection - maximizing the ability of the mature T cell pool to recognize and respond to foreign antigens. In vivo evidence for the relevance of these findings came from studies with 3 different infectious agents, revealing that CD5hi T cells dominated in the memory pool over CD5 lo cells after resolution of the infectious process, that in older mice, the nave T cell pool is relatively depleted and the memory pool enriched in CD5hi T cells, and that a similar shift between in the fraction of CD5hi T cell can be seen when comparing cord blood and adult samples from humans. These findings are surprising in light of several decades of work on the structural basis of T cell pMHC recognition and the role of peptides vs. MHC molecules in thymic selection and peripheral antigen recognition. Our observations indicate that the field will need to re-visit the interpretations placed on crystal structures of TCR-pMHC interactions to explain the self-foreign antigen affinity connection we have uncovered. These data also have important implications for understanding the nature of T cells responding to self-antigens that promote autoimmune disease and for identifying the best subset of cells to use in adoptive immunotherapy. We have also conducted experiments combining flow cytometric studies with intravital 2 photon imaging to assess the role of self-recognition in naive lymphocytes trafficking through lymph nodes. Our data reveal that we can quantitate clear differences in the length of CD4 T cell interactions with MHC class II+ vs. MHC class II - dendritic cells and that this is correlated with a difference in the time it takes naive CD4 T cells to transit through the lymph node of wild-type and MHC class II-deficient mice. These studies have also unexpectedly revealed a systematic difference in the length of time CD4 vs. CD8 T cells spend in a lymph node and corresponding differences in entry and exit rates for the two T cell types. These studies provide additional evidence for non-negligible interactions between the TCRs on naive T cells and ambient self-ligands in the normal host, interactions of sufficient magnitude to affect the dynamics of lymphoid populations with lymphoid tissue, while also suggesting that CD4 and CD8 T cell use distinct strategies when scanning for antigen in secondary lymphoid tissues. The data derived from this study was used to support generation of a new model of lymphocyte trafficking that seeks to understand how T-cells optimize their search strategy for antigen with respect to the time involved in scanning multiple lymph nodes for antigen and ensuring that within a lymph node, antigen is found if it is present.

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Liu, Zhiduo; Gerner, Michael Y; Van Panhuys, Nicholas et al. (2015) Immune homeostasis enforced by co-localized effector and regulatory T cells. Nature 528:225-30
Mandl, Judith N; Germain, Ronald N (2014) Focusing in on T cell cross-reactivity. Cell 157:1006-8
Mandl, Judith N; Monteiro, João P; Vrisekoop, Nienke et al. (2013) T cell-positive selection uses self-ligand binding strength to optimize repertoire recognition of foreign antigens. Immunity 38:263-74
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