Signaling is initiated through the T Cell Receptor (TCR) when it is engaged by antigenic peptide fragments bound by Major Histocompatibility Complex (pMHC) proteins expressed on the surface of antigen presenting cells (APCs). The TCR complex is composed of the ligand binding TCRαβ heterodimer that associates non-covalently with CD3 dimers (the εδ and εγ heterodimers and the ζζ homodimer)1. Upon engagement of the receptor, the CD3 ζ chains are phosphorylated by the Src family kinase, Lck. This leads to the recruitment of the Syk family kinase, Zap70, which is then phosphorylated and activated by Lck. After that, Zap70 phosphorylates the adapter proteins LAT and SLP76, initiating the formation of the proximal signaling complex containing a large number of different signaling molecules2.
The formation of this complex eventually results in calcium and Ras-dependent transcription factor activation and the consequent initiation of a complex series of gene expression programs that give rise to T cell differentiation2. TCR signals (and the resulting state of differentiation) are modulated by many other factors, including antigen potency and crosstalk with co-stimulatory/co-inhibitory, chemokine, and cytokine receptors 3-4. Studying the spatial and temporal organization of the proximal signaling complex under various stimulation conditions is, therefore, key to understanding the TCR signaling pathway as well as its regulation by other signaling pathways.
One very useful model system to study signaling initiated by the TCR at the plasma membrane in T cells is glass-supported lipid bilayers, as described previously5-6. They can be utilized to present antigenic pMHC complexes, adhesion, and co-stimulatory molecules to T cells-serving as artificial APCs. By imaging the T cells interacting with the lipid bilayer using total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy (TIRFM), we can restrict the excitation to within 100 nm of the space between the glass and the cell surface 7-8. This allows us to image primarily the signaling events occurring at the plasma membrane. As we are interested in imaging the recruitment of signaling proteins to the TCR complex, we describe a two-camera TIRF imaging system wherein the TCR, labeled with fluorescent Fab (fragment antigen binding) fragments of the H57 antibody (purified from hybridoma H57-597, ATCC, ATCC Number:HB-218) which is specific for TCRβ, and signaling proteins, tagged with GFP, may be imaged simultaneously and in real time. This strategy is necessary due to the highly dynamic nature of both the T cells and of the signaling events that are occurring at the TCR. This imaging modality has allowed researchers to image single ligands 9-11 as well as recruitment of signaling molecules to activated receptors and is an excellent system to study biochemistry in-situ12-16.