T-cells, the body's sentinels, patrol every corner of the body looking out for foreign threats such as bacteria and viruses. Receptor molecules on the T-cells identify invaders by recognizing their specific antigens, helping the T-cells discriminate attackers from the body's own cells. When they recognize a threat, the T-cells signal other parts of the immune system to confront the invader.
These T-cells use a complex process to recognize the foreign pathogens and diseased cells. In a paper published this week in the journal Cell, researchers add a new level of understanding to that process by describing how the T-cell receptors (TCR) use mechanical contact - the forces involved in their binding to the antigens - to make decisions about whether or not the cells they encounter are threats.
"This is the first systematic study of how T-cell recognition is affected by mechanical force, and it shows that forces play an important role in the functions of T-cells," said Cheng Zhu, a Regents' professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. "We think that mechanical force plays a role in almost every step of T-cell biology."