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MHC-E regulates NK cells by displaying MHC class Ia signal peptides (VL9) to NKG2A:CD94 receptors. MHC-E can also present sequence-diverse, lower-affinity, pathogen-derived peptides to T cell receptors (TCRs) on CD8+ T cells. To understand these affinity differences, human MHC-E (HLA-E)-VL9 versus pathogen-derived peptide structures are compared. Small-angle X-ray scatter (SAXS) measures biophysical parameters in solution, allowing comparison with crystal structures. For HLA-E-VL9, there is concordance between SAXS and crystal parameters. In contrast, HLA-E-bound pathogen-derived peptides produce larger SAXS dimensions that reduce to their crystallographic dimensions only when excess peptide is supplied. Further crystallographic analysis demonstrates three amino acids, exclusive to MHC-E, that not only position VL9 close to the α2 helix, but also allow non-VL9 peptide binding with re-configuration of a key TCR-interacting α2 region. Thus, non-VL9-bound peptides introduce an alternative peptide-binding motif and surface recognition landscape, providing a likely basis for VL9- and non-VL9-HLA-E immune discrimination.

Original publication




Journal article


Cell reports

Publication Date





Nuffield Department of Medicine Research Building, Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, Roosevelt Drive, Oxford OX3 7FZ, UK.


CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes, Humans, Peptides, Histocompatibility Antigens Class I, X-Ray Diffraction, Protein Conformation, Protein Binding, Scattering, Small Angle, NK Cell Lectin-Like Receptor Subfamily C