While recent evidence strongly suggests that the third complementarity determining regions (CDR3s) of T cell receptors (TCRs) directly contact antigenic peptides bound to major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules, the nature of other TCR contact(s) is less clear. Here we probe the extent to which different antigens can affect this interaction by comparing the responses of T cells bearing structurally related TCRs to cytochrome c peptides and staphylococcal enterotoxin A (SEA) presented by 13 mutant antigen-presenting cell (APC) lines. Each APC expresses a class II MHC molecule (I-Ek) with a single substitution of an amino acid residue predicted to be located on the MHC alpha helices and to point "up" towards the TCR. We find that very limited changes (even a single amino acid) in either a CDR3 loop of the TCR or in a contact residue of the antigenic peptide can have a profound effect on relatively distant TCR/MHC interactions. The extent of these effects can be as great as that observed between T cells bearing entirely different TCRs and recognizing different peptides. We also find that superantigen presentation entails a distinct mode of TCR/MHC interaction compared with peptide presentation. These data suggest that TCR/MHC contacts can be made in a variety of ways between the same TCR and MHC, with the final configuration apparently dominated by the antigen. These observations suggest a molecular basis for recent reports in which either peptide analogues or superantigens trigger distinct pathways of T cell activation.

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