Urtica dioica agglutinin (UDA) is an unusual plant lectin that differs from all other known plant lectins with respect to its molecular structure and its extremely low specific agglutination activity. We recently reported that this small lectin (8.5 kDa) is a T cell mitogen distinguishable from classical T cell lectin mitogens by its ability to discriminate a particular population of CD4+ and CD8+ T cells as well as its capacity to induce an original pattern of T cell activation and cytokine production. The mechanism by which UDA activates T cells was investigated and compared with the conventional T cell mitogen Con A and the known superantigen staphylococcal enterotoxin B. Our data show that T cell proliferation induced by UDA is strictly dependent on AC expressing MHC class II molecules but is not MHC restricted. This proliferation can be partially inhibited by anti-I-A or anti-I-E mAb and completely blocked by a mAb recognizing monomorphic determinants on the Ia molecule. UDA indeed binds to specific carbohydrate structures present on class II molecules. UDA-induced T cell stimulation is dependent on TCR recognition of the unprocessed intact molecule in association with various Ia molecules. T cell response to UDA is clonally expressed and correlates with particular TCR V beta gene families usage. This stimulation leads to a sixfold enrichment of V beta 8.3+ T cells within 3 days. Therefore, UDA appears to use the same molecular mechanism as structurally unrelated bacterial or retroviral superantigens and we propose that this lectin is a superantigen. UDA, which is not a pathogenicity factor, could provide a useful probe for the analysis of T cell activation by superantigens.

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