The majority of cell surface receptors involved in antigen recognition by T cells and in the orchestration of the subsequent cell signalling events are glycoproteins. The length of a typical N-linked sugar is comparable with that of an immunoglobulin domain (30 A). Thus, by virtue of their size alone, oligosaccharides may be expected to play a significant role in the functions and properties of the cell surface proteins to which they are attached. A databank of oligosaccharide structures has been constructed from NMR and crystallographic data to aid in the interpretation of crystal structures of glycoproteins. As unambiguous electron density can usually only be assigned to the glycan cores, the remainder of the sugar is then modelled into the crystal lattice by superimposing the appropriate oligosaccharide from the database. This approach provides insights into the roles that glycosylation might play in cell surface receptors, by providing models that delineate potential close packing interactions on the cell surface. It has been proposed that the specific recognition of antigen by T cells results in the formation of an immunological synapse between the T cell and the antigen-presenting cell. The cell adhesion glycoproteins, such as CD2 and CD48, help to form a cell junction, providing a molecular spacer between opposing cells. The oligosaccharides located on the membrane proximal domains of CD2 and CD48 provide a scaffold to orient the binding faces, which leads to increased affinity. In the next step, recruitment of the peptide major histocompatibility complex (pMHC) by the T-cell receptors (TCRs) requires mobility on the membrane surface. The TCR sugars are located such that they could prevent non-specific aggregation. Importantly, the sugars limit the possible geometry and spacing of TCR/MHC clusters which precede cell signalling. We postulate that, in the final stage, the sugars could play a general role in controlling the assembly and stabilisation of the complexes in the synapse and in protecting them from proteolysis during prolonged T-cell engagement.
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