MHC class I glycoproteins possess an invariant site for N-linked oligosaccharide addition at position 86 of the heavy chain. For human HLA-A, -B, and -C class I glycoproteins, position 86 is the only site of N-linked glycosylation. Comparison of the size and relative abundance of oligosaccharides associated with nine HLA-A, -B, or -C allotypes isolated from EBV-transformed B cell lines and mixtures of HLA-A, -B, and -C allotypes isolated from pooled PBLs revealed a very restricted set of structures. Allotypes encoded by the HLA-A and -B loci have two predominant glycan structures that were almost exclusively di-sialylated. In contrast, HLA-C allotypes have four glycan structures, comprising those associated with HLA-A and -B and two additional glycans. Identical oligosaccharides were present on different allotypes of a class I HLA locus, and in particular, HLA-C allotypes defining two inhibitory specificities for NK cells were shown to possess the same set of oligosaccharides. The uniformity of oligosaccharide structure associated with different HLA-A, -B, and -C products and the relative lack of heterogeneity for any given allotype are unusual features for a mammalian glycoprotein. Particularly striking is that such conserved oligosaccharide structures juxtapose the major regions of amino acid sequence variation within the Ag recognition site, including the polymorphisms of the alpha 1 helix that determine the inhibitory ligands for human NK cells.

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