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Equivalent T cell epitope promiscuity in ecologically diverse human pathogens.

  • Author(s): Wiens, Kirsten E;
  • Swaminathan, Harish;
  • Copin, Richard;
  • Lun, Desmond S;
  • Ernst, Joel D
  • Editor(s): Gray, Clive M
  • et al.


The HLA (human leukocyte antigen) molecules that present pathogen-derived epitopes to T cells are highly diverse. Correspondingly, many pathogens such as HIV evolve epitope variants in order to evade immune recognition. In contrast, another persistent human pathogen, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, has highly conserved epitope sequences. This raises the question whether there is also a difference in the ability of these pathogens' epitopes to bind diverse HLA alleles, referred to as an epitope's binding promiscuity. To address this question, we compared the in silico HLA binding promiscuity of T cell epitopes from pathogens with distinct infection strategies and outcomes of human exposure.


We used computer algorithms to predict the binding affinity of experimentally-verified microbial epitope peptides to diverse HLA-DR, HLA-A and HLA-B alleles. We then analyzed binding promiscuity of epitopes derived from HIV and M. tuberculosis. We also analyzed promiscuity of epitopes from Streptococcus pyogenes, which is known to exhibit epitope diversity, and epitopes of Bacillus anthracis and Clostridium tetani toxins, as these bacteria do not depend on human hosts for their survival or replication, and their toxin antigens are highly immunogenic human vaccines.


We found that B. anthracis and C. tetani epitopes were the most promiscuous of the group that we analyzed. However, there was no consistent difference or trend in promiscuity in epitopes contained in HIV, M. tuberculosis, and S. pyogenes.


Our results show that human pathogens with distinct immune evasion strategies and epitope diversities exhibit equivalent levels of T cell epitope promiscuity. These results indicate that differences in epitope promiscuity do not account for the observed differences in epitope variation and conservation.

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