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T cell activation is initiated by T cell receptor (TCR) phosphorylation. This requires the local depletion of large receptor-type phosphatases from "close contacts" formed when T cells interact with surfaces presenting agonistic TCR ligands, but exactly how the ligands potentiate signaling is unclear. It has been proposed that TCR ligands could enhance receptor phosphorylation and signaling just by holding TCRs in phosphatase-depleted close contacts, but this has not been directly tested. We devised simple methods to move the TCR in and out of close contacts formed by T cells interacting with supported lipid bilayers (SLBs) and to slow the receptor's diffusion in the contacts, using a series of anti-CD3ε Fab- and ligand-based adducts of the receptor. TCRs engaging a Fab extended with the large extracellular region of CD45 were excluded from contacts and produced no signaling. Conversely, allowing the extended Fab to become tethered to the SLB trapped the TCR in the close contacts, leading to very strong signaling. Importantly, attaching untethered anti-CD3ε Fab or peptide/MHC ligands, each of which were largely inactive in solution but both of which reduced TCR diffusion in close contacts approximately fivefold, also initiated signaling during cell/SLB contact. Our findings indicate that holding TCRs in close contacts or simply slowing their diffusion in phosphatase-depleted regions of the cell surface suffices to initiate signaling, effects we could reproduce in single-particle stochastic simulations. Our study shows that the TCR is preconfigured for signaling in a way that allows it to be triggered by ligands acting simply as receptor "traps."

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date





T cells, computer simulation, diffusion analysis, receptor triggering, signaling