Antigen Processing and Presentation

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

T cells do not recognize free-floating or cell-bound antigens as they appear on the surface of the pathogen. They only recognize antigen on the surface of specialized cells called antigen-presenting cells. Antigens are internalized by these cells. Antigen processing is a mechanism that enzymatically cleaves the antigen into smaller pieces. The antigen fragments are then brought to the cell’s surface and associated with a specialized type of antigen-presenting protein known as a major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule. The MHC is the cluster of genes that encode these antigen-presenting molecules. The association of the antigen fragments with an MHC molecule on the surface of a cell is known as antigen presentation and results in the recognition of antigen by a T cell. This association of antigen and MHC occurs inside the cell, and it is the complex of the two that is brought to the surface. The peptide-binding cleft is a small indentation at the end of the MHC molecule that is furthest away from the cell membrane; it is here that the processed fragment of antigen sits. MHC molecules are capable of presenting a variety of antigens, depending on the amino acid sequence, in their peptide-binding clefts. It is the combination of the MHC molecule and the fragment of the original peptide or carbohydrate that is actually physically recognized by the T cell receptor.

Two distinct types of MHC molecules, MHC class I and MHC class II, play roles in antigen presentation. Although produced from different genes, they both have similar functions. They bring processed antigen to the surface of the cell via a transport vesicle and present the antigen to the T cell and its receptor. Antigens from different classes of pathogens, however, use different MHC classes and take different routes through the cell to get to the surface for presentation. The basic mechanism, though, is the same. Antigens are processed by digestion, are brought into the endomembrane system of the cell, and then are expressed on the surface of the antigen-presenting cell for antigen recognition by a T cell. Intracellular antigens are typical of viruses, which replicate inside the cell, and certain other intracellular parasites and bacteria. These antigens are processed in the cytosol by an enzyme complex known as the proteasome and are then brought into the endoplasmic reticulum by the transporter associated with antigen processing (TAP) system, where they interact with class I MHC molecules and are eventually transported to the cell surface by a transport vesicle.

Extracellular antigens, characteristic of many bacteria, parasites, and fungi that do not replicate inside the cell’s cytoplasm, are brought into the endomembrane system of the cell by receptor-mediated endocytosis. The resulting vesicle fuses with vesicles from the Golgi complex, which contain pre-formed MHC class II molecules. After fusion of these two vesicles and the association of antigen and MHC, the new vesicle makes its way to the cell surface.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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