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Biophysical mechanism of T-cell receptor triggering in a reconstituted system


A T-cell-mediated immune response is initiated by the T-cell receptor (TCR) interacting with peptide-bound major histocompatibility complex (pMHC) on an infected cell. The mechanism by which this interaction triggers intracellular phosphorylation of the TCR, which lacks a kinase domain, remains poorly understood. Here, we have introduced the TCR and associated signalling molecules into a non-immune cell and reconstituted ligand-specific signalling when these cells are conjugated with antigen-presenting cells. We show that signalling requires the differential segregation of a phosphatase and kinase in the plasma membrane. An artificial, chemically controlled receptor system generates the same effect as TCR–pMHC, demonstrating that the binding energy of an extracellular protein–protein interaction can drive the spatial segregation of membrane proteins without a transmembrane conformational change. This general mechanism may extend to other receptors that rely on extrinsic kinases, including, as we demonstrate, chimaeric antigen receptors being developed for cancer immunotherapy.

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Figure 1: Regulatable TCR triggering in an engineered HEK cell line.
Figure 2: The exclusion of CD45 phosphatase is necessary and sufficient for TCR triggering.
Figure 3: TCR–pMHC binding and triggering can be physically and temporally uncoupled.
Figure 4: The TCR–pMHC interaction drives protein exclusion at conjugate regions.
Figure 5: Artificial receptor systems can cause CD45 exclusion and triggering.
Figure 6: A model for steps in TCR-mediated segregation based on membrane bending and energy minimization.


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We thank A. van der Merwe and V. Cerundolo for the 1G4 TCR sequence, A. Weiss for cell lines and advice, C. June for the CD19 CAR construct, N. Stuurman and K. Thorn for microscopy help and members of the Vale laboratory for discussions. R.D.V. is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and J.R.J. is a fellow of the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.R.J. conceived the study, collected the data and conducted the analyses. J.R.J. and R.D.V. designed the experiments and wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ronald D. Vale.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-8 and the legends to Supplementary Movies 1-5. (PDF 2624 kb)

Supplementary Movie 1

The movie shows that the pervanadate treatment of reconstituted cells causes ZAP70 membrane recruitment - see Supplementary Information file for full legend. (AVI 110 kb)

Supplementary Movie 2

This movies contains a 3D reconstruction of the HEK-1G4:APC conjugate - see Supplementary Information file for full legend. (AVI 1710 kb)

Supplementary Movie 3

In this movie we see that ZAP70 rapidly translocates to the cell-cell interface on TCR/pMHC binding - see Supplementary Information file for full legend. (AVI 2432 kb)

Supplementary Movie 4

In this movie shows monitoring ZAP70 recruitment to signalling-competent regions with time - see Supplementary Information file for full legend. (AVI 988 kb)

Supplementary Movie 5

This movie shows that chimaeric-antigen receptor triggering can lead to extensive convolution of the HEK plasma membrane- see Supplementary Information file for full legend. (AVI 1321 kb)

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James, J., Vale, R. Biophysical mechanism of T-cell receptor triggering in a reconstituted system. Nature 487, 64–69 (2012).

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