New vistas unfold: Chicken MHC molecules reveal unexpected ways to present peptides to the immune system

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The functions of a wide variety of molecules with structures similar to the classical class I and class II molecules encoded by the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) have been studied by biochemical and structural studies over decades, with many aspects for humans and mice now enshrined in textbooks as dogma. However, there is much variation of the MHC and MHC molecules among the other jawed vertebrates, understood in the most detail for the domestic chicken. Among the many unexpected features in chickens is the co-evolution between polymorphic TAP and tapasin genes with a dominantly-expressed class I gene based on a different genomic arrangement compared to typical mammals. Another important discovery was the hierarchy of class I alleles for a suite of properties including size of peptide repertoire, stability and cell surface expression level, which is also found in humans although not as extreme, and which led to the concept of generalists and specialists in response to infectious pathogens. Structural studies of chicken class I molecules have provided molecular explanations for the differences in peptide binding compared to typical mammals. These unexpected phenomena include the stringent binding with three anchor residues and acidic residues at the peptide C-terminus for fastidious alleles, and the remodelling binding sites, relaxed binding of anchor residues in broad hydrophobic pockets and extension at the peptide C-terminus for promiscuous alleles. The first few studies for chicken class II molecules have already uncovered unanticipated structural features, including an allele that binds peptides by a decamer core. It seems likely that the understanding of how MHC molecules bind and present peptides to lymphocytes will broaden considerably with further unexpected discoveries through biochemical and structural studies for chickens and other non-mammalian vertebrates.
Original languageEnglish
Article number886672
Number of pages13
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jul 2022


  • avian
  • bf
  • BL
  • peptide-binding specificity
  • peptide-translocation specificity
  • evolution


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