The identification of MHC class I–restricted CTL epitopes in certain species, particularly nonmammals, remains a challenge. In this study, we developed a four-step identification scheme and confirmed its efficiency by identifying the Anpl-UAA*76–restricted CTL epitopes of Tembusu virus (TMUV) in inbred haplotype ducks HBW/B4. First, the peptide binding motif of Anpl-UAA*76 was determined by random peptide library in de novo liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry, a novel nonbiased, data-independent acquisition method that we previously established. Second, a total of 38 TMUV peptides matching the motif were screened from the viral proteome, among which 11 peptides were conserved across the different TMUV strains. Third, the conserved TMUV peptides were refolded in vitro with Anpl-UAA*76 and Anpl–β2-microglobulin to verify the results from the previous two steps. To clarify the structural basis of the obtained motif, we resolved the crystal structure of Anpl-UAA*76 with the TMUV NS3 peptide LRKRQLTVL and found that Asp34 is critical for the preferential binding of the B pocket to bind the second residue to arginine as an anchor residue. Fourth, the immunogenicity of the conserved TMUV peptides was tested in vivo using specific pathogen-free HBW/B4 ducks immunized with the attenuated TMUV vaccine. All 11 conserved TMUV epitopes could bind stably to Anpl-UAA*76 in vitro and stimulate the secretion of IFN-γ and lymphocyte proliferation, and three conserved and one nonconserved peptides were selected to evaluate the CTL responses in vivo by flow cytometry and their tetramers. We believe that this new scheme could improve the identification of MHC class I–restricted CTL epitopes, and our data provide a foundation for further study on duck anti-TMUV CTL immunity.

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