Superantigens are bacterial, viral, or retroviral proteins which can activate specifically a large proportion of T cells. In contrast with classical peptide antigen recognition, superantigens do not require processing to small peptides but act as complete or partially processed proteins. They can bind to major histocompatibility complex class II molecules and stimulate T cells expressing particular T cell receptor V beta chains. The other polymorphic parts of the T cell receptor, which are crucial for classical antigen recognition, are not important for this interaction. When this strategy is used a large proportion of the host immune system can be activated shortly after infection. The activated cells have a wide variety of antigen specificities. The ability to stimulate polyclonal B (IgG) as well as T cell responses raises possibilities of a role for superantigens in the induction of autoimmune diseases. Superantigens have been a great tool in the hands of immunologists in unravelling some of the basic mechanisms of tolerance and immunity.
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