Author(s): AltanBonnet G, Germain RN
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Abstract T-lymphocyte activation displays a remarkable combination of speed, sensitivity, and discrimination in response to peptide-major histocompatibility complex (pMHC) ligand engagement of clonally distributed antigen receptors (T cell receptors or TCRs). Even a few foreign pMHCs on the surface of an antigen-presenting cell trigger effective signaling within seconds, whereas 1 x 10(5)-1 x 10(6) self-pMHC ligands that may differ from the foreign stimulus by only a single amino acid fail to elicit this response. No existing model accounts for this nearly absolute distinction between closely related TCR ligands while also preserving the other canonical features of T-cell responses. Here we document the unexpected highly amplified and digital nature of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) activation in T cells. Based on this observation and evidence that competing positive- and negative-feedback loops contribute to TCR ligand discrimination, we constructed a new mathematical model of proximal TCR-dependent signaling. The model made clear that competition between a digital positive feedback based on ERK activity and an analog negative feedback involving SH2 domain-containing tyrosine phosphatase (SHP-1) was critical for defining a sharp ligand-discrimination threshold while preserving a rapid and sensitive response. Several nontrivial predictions of this model, including the notion that this threshold is highly sensitive to small changes in SHP-1 expression levels during cellular differentiation, were confirmed by experiment. These results combining computation and experiment reveal that ligand discrimination by T cells is controlled by the dynamics of competing feedback loops that regulate a high-gain digital amplifier, which is itself modulated during differentiation by alterations in the intracellular concentrations of key enzymes. The organization of the signaling network that we model here may be a prototypic solution to the problem of achieving ligand selectivity, low noise, and high sensitivity in biological responses.
This article was published in PLoS Biol
and referenced in Current Synthetic and Systems Biology