Biochemical Society Transactions

Novartis Medal Lecture

Antibodies: a Paradigm for the Evolution of Molecular Recognition

M. S. Neuberger


Novel proteins have been elaborated over evolutionary time by an iterative alternation of mutation and selection. In a similar way, the humoral immune system also uses an iterative alternation of mutation and selection to generate novel antibodies that display a high affinity for their cognate antigen - but this is achieved in a matter of a days. Gene rearrangement is used to produce a primary repertoire of antibodies and, on entering the body, antigen triggers the clonal expansion of those B lymphocytes that express a cognate antibody, albeit one of low affinity. Rapid and specific affinity maturation is then achieved by subjecting the immunoglobulin genes in the rapidly expanding B cells to a period of intense mutation. The intensity of this mutational assault is tolerated because it is targeted specifically to the immunoglobulin genes, causing relatively little damage to other loci. Antigen-mediated selection then allows the preferential expansion of those mutants expressing antibodies displaying improved binding characteristics. Here, studies are described that have been performed to glean insight into the mechanisms of the hypermutation and selection processes. Experiments are also described in which an attempt has been made to recapitulate aspects of physiological antibody generation in vitro, allowing the development of novel approaches to the generation of proteins with high-affinity binding sites.

  • B lymphocytes
  • gene conversion
  • immunoglobulins
  • somatic hypermutation
  • switch recombination
  • AID, activation-induced cytidine deaminase
  • MSH, mammalian homologue of bacterial MutS mutator protein