Major Histocompatibility Complex Molecules

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Drawing of a phospholipid bilayer (plasma membrane). An MHC Class I protein molecule is found in all nucleated body cells. It has a linear portion in the membrane and four portions on the outer side of the cell. One of these portions connects to the membrane spanning portion; two form the antigen binding site; and the fourth is labeled the Beta-2 microglobulin. MHC Class II protein molecules are found in lymphocytes and macrophages. This has two membrane spanning portions (each attached to a portion on the outside of the cell). The two portions attached to these form the antigen binding site.
MHC I are found on all nucleated body cells, and MHC II are found on macrophages, dendritic cells, and B cells (along with MHC I). The antigen-binding cleft of MHC I is formed by domains α1 and α2. The antigen-binding cleft of MHC II is formed by domains α1 and β1.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is a collection of genes coding for MHC molecules found on the surface of all nucleated cells of the body. In humans, the MHC genes are also referred to as human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes. Mature red blood cells, which lack a nucleus, are the only cells that do not express MHC molecules on their surface.

There are two classes of MHC molecules involved in adaptive immunity, MHC I and MHC II. MHC I molecules are found on all nucleated cells; they present normal self-antigens as well as abnormal or nonself pathogens to the effector T cells involved in cellular immunity. In contrast, MHC II molecules are only found on macrophages, dendritic cells, and B cells; they present abnormal or nonself pathogen antigens for the initial activation of T cells.

Both types of MHC molecules are transmembrane glycoproteins that assemble as dimers in the cytoplasmic membrane of cells, but their structures are quite different. MHC I molecules are composed of a longer α protein chain coupled with a smaller β2 microglobulin protein, and only the α chain spans the cytoplasmic membrane. The α chain of the MHC I molecule folds into three separate domains: α1, α2 and α3. MHC II molecules are composed of two protein chains (an α and a β chain) that are approximately similar in length. Both chains of the MHC II molecule possess portions that span the plasma membrane, and each chain folds into two separate domains: α1 and α2, and β1, and β2. In order to present abnormal or non-self-antigens to T cells, MHC molecules have a cleft that serves as the antigen-binding site near the “top” (or outermost) portion of the MHC-I or MHC-II dimer. For MHC I, the antigen-binding cleft is formed by the α1 and α2 domains, whereas for MHC II, the cleft is formed by the α1 and β1 domains.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: