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A structural characterization of the interaction between ab TCRs and cognate peptide-MHC (pMHC) is central to understanding adaptive T cell-mediated immunity. X-ray crystallography, although the source of much structural data, traditionally provides only a static snapshot of the protein. Given the emerging evidence for the important role of conformational dynamics in protein function, we interrogated 309 crystallographic structures of pMHC complexes using ensemble refinement, a technique that can extract dynamic information from the x-ray data. Focusing on a subset of human pMHC class I systems, we found that in many cases, ensemble methods were able to uncover previously hidden evidence of significant conformational plasticity, thereby revealing additional information that can build upon and significantly enhance functional interpretations that are based on a single static structure. Notable examples include the interpretation of differences in the disease association of HLA subtypes, the relationship between peptide prominence and TCR recognition, the role of conformational flexibility in vaccine design, and the discrimination between induced fit and conformational selection models of TCR binding. We show that the currently widespread practice of analyzing pMHC interactions via the study of a single crystallographic structure does not make use of pertinent and easily accessible information from x-ray data concerning alternative protein conformations. This new analysis therefore not only highlights the capacity for ensemble methods to significantly enrich the interpretation of decades of structural data but also provides previously missing information concerning the dynamics of existing characterized TCR-pMHC interactions.
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