Superantigens and Unregulated Activation of T Cells

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a) the T cell receptor on the T cell recognizes the epitope on the MHC II on the macrophage and binds. B) The T cell receptor binds even though it does not recognize the epitope because the superantigen is bound. Many dots labeled cytokines are present.
(a) The macrophage in this figure is presenting a foreign epitope that does not match the TCR of the T cell. Because the T cell does not recognize the epitope, it is not activated. (b) The macrophage in this figure is presenting a superantigen that is not recognized by the TCR of the T cell, yet the superantigen still is able to bridge and bind the MHC II and TCR molecules. This nonspecific, uncontrolled activation of the T cell results in an excessive release of cytokines that activate other T cells and cause excessive inflammation. (credit: modification of work by “Microbiotic”/YouTube)

OpenStax Microbiology

When T cell activation is controlled and regulated, the result is a protective response that is effective in combating infections. However, if T cell activation is unregulated and excessive, the result can be life-threatening. Certain bacterial and viral pathogens produce toxins known as superantigens that can trigger such an unregulated response. Known bacterial superantigens include toxic shock syndrome toxin (TSST), staphylococcal enterotoxins, streptococcal pyrogenic toxins, streptococcal superantigen, and the streptococcal mitogenic exotoxin. Viruses known to produce superantigens include Epstein-Barr virus (human herpesvirus 4), cytomegalovirus (human herpesvirus 5), and others.

The mechanism of T cell activation by superantigens involves their simultaneous binding to MHC II molecules of APCs and the variable region of the TCR β chain. This binding occurs outside of the antigen-binding cleft of MHC II, so the superantigen will bridge together and activate MHC II and TCR without specific foreign epitope recognition. The result is an excessive, uncontrolled release of cytokines, often called a cytokine storm, which stimulates an excessive inflammatory response. This can lead to a dangerous decrease in blood pressure, shock, multi-organ failure, and potentially, death.


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