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Low-affinity CD4+ T cells are major responders in the primary immune response

Martinez, RJ;Andargachew, R;Martinez, HA;Evavold, BD;

A robust primary immune response has been correlated with the precursor number of antigen-specific T cells, as identified using peptide MHCII tetramers. However, these tetramers identify only the highest-affinity T cells. Here we show the entire CD4+ T-cell repertoire, inclusive of low-affinity T cells missed by tetramers, using a T-cell receptor (TCR) signalling reporter and micropipette assay to quantify naive precursors and expanded populations. In vivo limiting dilution assays reveal hundreds more precursor T cells than previously thought, with higher-affinity tetramer-positive T cells, comprising only 5-30% of the total antigen-specific naive repertoire. Lower-affinity T cells maintain their predominance as the primary immune response progresses, with no enhancement of survival of T cells with high-affinity TCRs. These findings demonstrate that affinity for antigen does not control CD4+ T-cell entry into the primary immune response, as a diverse range in affinity is maintained from precursor through peak of T-cell expansion.