The surveillance of target cells by natural killer (NK) cells utilizes an ensemble of inhibitory and activating receptors, many of which interact with major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules. NK cell recognition of MHC class I proteins is important developmentally for the acquisition of full NK cell effector capacity and during target cell recognition, where the engagement of inhibitory receptors and MHC class I molecules attenuates NK cell activation. Human NK cells have evolved two broad strategies for recognition of human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I molecules: (i) direct recognition of polymorphic classical HLA class I proteins by diverse receptor families such as the killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs), and (ii) indirect recognition of conserved sets of HLA class I-derived peptides displayed on the non-classical HLA-E for recognition by CD94-NKG2 receptors. In this review, we assess the structural basis for the interaction between these NK receptors and their HLA class I ligands and, using the suite of published KIR and CD94-NKG2 ternary complexes, highlight the features that allow NK cells to orchestrate the recognition of a range of different HLA class I proteins.
Saunders, P. M., Vivian, J. P., O'Connor, G. M., Sullivan, L. C., Pymm, P. G., Rossjohn, J., & Brooks, A. G. (2015). A bird's eye view of NK cell receptor interactions with their MHC class I ligands. Immunological Reviews, 267(1), 148 - 166. https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12319