Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules generally present peptides derived from cytoplasmic proteins, but recent reports have suggested that macrophages (M phi) may be uniquely able to present exogenous antigens via these molecules, and that particle-associated antigens show a marked increase in the efficiency of such presentation. We confirm here that particle uptake by M phi permits exogenous ovaalbumin (OVA) to gain access to the endogenous class I processing pathway, an event that occurs rarely, if at all, in the absence of phagocytic stimuli. Presentation of soluble protein antigens by MHC class I molecules, however, is not limited to M phi, nor is direct coupling of antigen to the particle required. A variety of unconjugated particles promoted presentation of simultaneously offered soluble OVA to Kb-restricted T cells by both M phi and non-M phi antigen-presenting cells (APC), provided the latter could phagocytose the particles. Enhancement of presentation by phagocytic stimuli could not be explained by greater delivery of soluble antigen to endosomal compartments because such stimuli did not increase soluble tracer accumulation, nor did they improve presentation of OVA to an MHC class II-restricted T cell hybridoma. OVA presentation induced by cophagocytosis of particles and free antigen was nevertheless very inefficient in comparison to presentation of OVA peptide, and even modest responses required high concentrations of protein and particles. Furthermore, only a fraction of APC exposed to OVA and particles were lysed by anti-OVA cytotoxic T lymphocytes, despite virtually all cells showing OVA accumulation, particle uptake, and Kb expression. Titration experiments were most consistent with a model in which, by disrupting membrane integrity, phagocytic overload ("indigestion") allows escape of OVA into the cytosol of some APC, rather than with a model in which phagocytosis activates a novel antigen processing pathway that has evolved to permit class I loading of exogenous antigen. These data suggest caution in the development of vaccine strategies based on use of particle conjugates for elicitation of CD8+ T cell immunity, but, at the same time, may be relevant to understanding class I-restricted responses to some intracellular pathogens normally resident in membrane-bound vesicles.

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