Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) recognize short antigenic peptides associated with cell surface class I major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules. This association presumably occurs between newly synthesized class I MHC molecules and peptide fragments in a pre-Golgi compartment. Little is known about the factors that regulate the formation of these antigenic peptide fragments within the cell. To examine the role of residues within a core epitope and in the flanking sequences for the generation and presentation of the newly synthesized peptide fragment recognized by CD8+ CTL, we have mutagenized the coding sequence for the CTL epitope spanning residues 202-221 in the influenza A/Japan/57 hemagglutinin (HA). In this study over 60 substitution mutations in the epitope were tested for their effects on target cell sensitization using a cytoplasmic viral expression system. The HA202-221 site contains two overlapping subsites defined by CTL clones 11-1 and 40-2. Mutations in HA residues 204-213 or residues 210-219 often abolished target cell lysis by CTL clones 11-1 and 40-2, respectively. Although residues outside the core epitope did not usually affect the ability to be lysed by CTL clones, substitution of a Gly residue for Val-214 abolished lysis by clone 11-1. These data suggest that residues within a site that affect MHC binding and T cell receptor recognition appear to play the predominant role in dictating the formation of the antigenic complex recognized by CD8+ CTL, and therefore the antigenicity of the protein antigen presented to CD8+ T cells. Most alterations in residues flanking the endogenously expressed epitope do not appreciably affect the generation and recognition of the site.

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