The mechanism of presentation of foreign antigens to helper T lymphocytes and the nature of the structures involved in this process are not totally understood. It is well documented that this event is carried out by antigen-presenting cells (APC) (e.g., macrophages, dendritic cells, and B lymphocytes) that internalize the antigen, process it, reexpress it on their membrane surface, and present it to the T cell in the context of major histocompatibility complex class II (Ia) molecules. Recent evidence supports the hypothesis that peptide antigens associate directly with Ia molecules on the APC surface membrane. However, the characteristics of other APC membrane structures potentially involved in antigen presentation are not entirely clear. Previous studies in our laboratories identified a guinea pig macrophage membrane-bound, non-Ia-containing antigenic complex (peak A) formed upon incubation of APC with the octapeptide antigen angiotensin (AII). This complex was capable of stimulating AII-immune guinea pig T cells and thus appeared to contain the immunologically relevant form of the antigen. For this reason it was important to establish whether such complex formation with peptides occurs with other cell types and with other peptide antigens. In the present study we found that other types of cells are also capable of forming such a membrane complex with antigen (peak A) and that this event is not unique to AII. Two other peptides, alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone and human fibrinopeptide B, both of which are antigenic in mice, were found to form peak A with a number of murine cell lines. As in our earlier studies with guinea pig macrophages, there was no evidence from these experiments for a role for major histocompatibility complex Ia antigens in the peptide binding observed. Differences in both the amount of peak A formation and the pattern of peptide antigen degradation were found from cell line to cell line for a given peptide, and from peptide to peptide for a given cell line, suggesting cellular heterogeneity in peptide processing and retention. In addition, cross-inhibition studies indicated that there was peptide specificity in the formation of peak A perhaps suggestive of molecular heterogeneity in the structure of peak A. These results indicate that there may be several types of cell surface molecules that specifically bind and retain peptide antigens.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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