Mechanisms involved in self-antigen processing and presentation are crucial in understanding the induction of self-tolerance in the thymus. We examined the immunogenicity of determinants from major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules that are expressed in the thymus and have tested peptides derived from the polymorphic regions of class I and class II molecules. We found that two peptides corresponding to NH2 termini of the class II alpha and beta chains (Ak alpha 1-18 and Ak beta 1-16) could bind to self-Ak molecules with high affinity and, surprisingly, were immunogenic in that they could elicit strong proliferative T cell responses in B10.A mice (Ak, Ek). Neonatal injection of peptide Ak beta 1-16 resulted in complete unresponsiveness to this peptide at 8 wk of age showing that these T cells were susceptible to tolerance induction. We have also tested certain class I MHC peptides and showed that some can interact efficiently with class II MHC peptides to induce an autoreactive T cell proliferative response. Among these class I peptides is one (Dd 61-85) that has the capacity to bind to self-Ia without being immunogenic, and therefore represents an MHC determinant that had induced thymic self-tolerance. We conclude that some self-MHC molecules can be processed into peptides that can be presented in the context of intact class II molecules at the surface of antigen-presenting cells. Autoreactive T cells recognizing optimally processed self-peptide/MHC complexes are eliminated during development, whereas other potentially autoreactive T cells escape clonal inactivation or deletion. Incomplete tolerance to self-antigens enriches the T cell repertoire despite the fact that such T cells may eventually become involved in autoimmune disease.

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