The major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-encoded heterodimeric TAP1/TAP2 transporter (TAP) translocates cytosolic peptides into the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), where peptides of 8 to 11 amino acids long associate with MHC class I molecules. We have studied the selectivity of peptide translocation by TAP in streptolysin O-permeabilized cells using glycosylatable, radioiodinated model peptides to detect import into the ER lumen. TAP-dependent translocation of a radiolabeled nonamer peptide was most efficiently inhibited by unlabeled 9- to 11-mer peptides. Peptides between 7 and 40 amino acids long all could inhibit transport, the longer peptides being least effective. Also, peptides shorter than eight amino acids were inefficiently translocated. The use of directly labeled length variants in translocation assays and TLC analysis of the transported material revealed two pathways for translocation: short peptides (7 to 13 amino acids long) were translocated without prior modification. In contrast, transport of longer peptides was not effective. Instead such peptides were clipped by cytosolic peptidases before efficient transport. Our data suggest that TAP preferentially translocates peptides of appropriate length for class I binding. Furthermore, TAP-translocated peptides were rapidly released from the ER unless they were trapped there by being glycosylated or by binding to MHC class I molecules.

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