To interfere with host immune responses, some microbial pathogens produce proteins with the properties of superantigens, which can interact via conserved V region framework subdomains of the Ag receptors of lymphocytes rather than the complementarity-determining region involved in the binding of conventional Ags. In recent studies, we have elucidated how a model B cell superantigen affects the host immune system by targeting a conserved V(H) site on the Ag receptors of B lymphocytes. To determine whether these findings represent a general paradigm, we investigated the in vivo immunobiologic properties of protein L of Peptostreptococcus magnus (PpL), a microbial Ig-binding protein specific for a V region site on Ig L chains. Our studies confirmed that PpL binding is restricted to a subset of murine Vkappa-expressing B cells, and found that B cells with stronger PpL-binding activity are associated with certain B cell subsets: splenic marginal zone (CD21(high) CD23(low)), splenic CD1(+), peritoneal B-1a (IgD(low) CD5(+)), and CD21(high) CD24(high) B cells in peripheral lymph nodes, mesenteric lymph nodes, and Peyer's patches. Infusion of PpL triggered a sequence of events in B cell receptor (BCR)-targeted B cells, with rapid down-regulation of BCR, the induction of an activation phenotype, and limited rounds of proliferation. Apoptosis followed through a process heralded by the dissipation of mitochondrial membrane potential, the induction of the caspase pathway, DNA fragmentation, and the deposition of B cell apoptotic bodies. These studies define a common pathway by which microbial toxins that target V region-associated BCR sites induce programmed cell death.
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