To gain insight into the mechanism and limitations of antibody affinity maturation leading to memory B cell formation, we generated a phage display library of random mutants at heavy chain variable (V) complementarity determining region 2 positions 58 and 59 of an anti-p-azophenylarsonate (Ars) Fab. Single amino acid substitutions at these positions resulting from somatic hypermutation are recurrent products of affinity maturation in vivo. Most of the ex vivo mutants retained specificity for Ars. Among the many mutants displaying high Ars-binding activity, only one contained a position 58 and 59 amino acid combination that has been previously observed among the monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) derived from Ars-immunized mice. Affinity measurements on 14 of the ex vivo mutants with high Ars-binding activity showed that 11 had higher intrinsic affinities for Ars that the wild-type V region. However, nine of these Fabs also bound strongly to denatured DNA, a property neither displayed by the wild-type V region nor observed among the mutants characteristic of in vivo affinity maturation. These data suggest that ex vivo enhancement of mAb affinity via site-directed and random mutagenesis approaches may often lead to a reduction in antibody specificity that could complicate the use of the resulting mAbs for diagnostic and therapeutic applications. Moreover, the data are compatible with a hypothesis proposing that increased specificity for antigen, rather than affinity per se, is the driving force for formation of the memory B cell compartment.

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