Small changes in the peptide-major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule ligands recognized by antigen-specific T cell receptors (TCRs) can convert fully activating complexes into partially activating or even inhibitory ones. This study examined early TCR-dependent signals induced by such partial agonists or antagonists. In contrast to typical agonist ligands, both an antagonist and several partial agonists stimulated a distinct pattern of ζ chain phosphorylation and failed to activate associated ZAP-70 kinase. These results identify a specific step in the early tyrosine phosphorylation cascade that is altered after TCR engagement with modified peptide-MHC molecule complexes. This finding may explain the different biological responses to TCR occupancy by these variant ligands.
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