Invariant chain (Ii) contributes in a number of distinct ways to the proper functioning of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules. These include promoting effective association and folding of newly synthesized MHC class II alpha and beta subunits, increasing transit of assembled heterodimers out of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), inhibiting class II peptide binding, and facilitating class II movement to or accumulation in endosomes/lysosomes. Although the cytoplasmic tail of Ii makes a key contribution to the endocytic localization of class II, the relationship between the structure of Ii and its other diverse functions remains unknown. We show here that two thirds of the lumenal segment of Ii can be eliminated without affecting its contributions to the secretory pathway events of class II folding, ER to Golgi transport, or inhibition of peptide binding. These same experiments reveal that a short (25 residue) contiguous internal segment of Ii (the CLIP region), frequently found associated with purified MHC class II molecules, is critical for all three functions. Together with other recent findings, these results raise the possibility that the contributions of Ii to the early postsynthetic behavior of class II may depend on its interaction with the class II binding site. This would be consistent with the intracellular behavior of unoccupied MHC class I and class II molecules as incompletely folded proteins and imply a related structural basis for the similar contributions of Ii to class II and of short peptides to class I assembly and transport.

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