Calnexin is a resident protein of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) that associates with nascent protein chains. Among the newly synthesized integral membrane proteins known to bind to calnexin is invariant chain (Ii), and Ii release from calnexin coincides with proper assembly with major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II heterodimers. Although calnexin association with several membrane glycoproteins depends on interactions involving N-linked glycans, we previously reported that a truncation mutant of mouse Ii (mIi1-107) lacking both N-glycosylation sites was highly effective in associating with MHC class II heterodimers and escorting these dimers through the secretory pathway. This could indicate that calnexin, despite binding to both Ii and class II, is not necessary for the proper interaction of these proteins, or that in contrast to most membrane glycoproteins, the N-linked glycans of Ii are not critical to its interaction with this chaperone. To examine this issue, we have directly explored the binding of calnexin to both Ii truncation mutants lacking the typical sites of N-glycosylation or Ii produced in cells treated with tunicamycin to prevent glycan addition. These experiments revealed that either method of eliminating N-linked carbohydrates on Ii also inhibited association with calnexin. A lumenally truncated form of Ii (mIi1-131) that still has N-linked carbohydrates showed a decreased affinity for calnexin compared with intact Ii, however, indicating that calnexin-Ii binding is not determined solely by the sugar moieties. All forms of Ii lacking N-linked sugars and showing defective association with calnexin also had enhanced rates of preendosomal degradation. Despite this effect on degradation rate, tunicamycin treatment did not inhibit the association of class II with glycan-free Ii. These data support the view that calnexin is not an absolute requirement for the proper assembly of class II-Ii nonamers, but rather acts primarily to retain Ii in the ER and to inhibit its degradation. These two properties of calnexin-Ii interaction may help ensure that sufficient intact Ii is available for efficient inactivation of the binding sites of newly synthesized class II molecules, while limiting the ability of excess free Ii to alter the transport properties of the early endocytic pathway.

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