Studies by electron microscopy, fluorescence polarization, hydrodynamics and X-ray crystallography have demonstrated the ability of different parts of immunoglobulin molecules to move relative to each other. This movement facilitates the multiple interactions that antibodies make with polyvalent antigens and effector proteins. Comparisons of the atomic structures of immunoglobulins of the same sequence in different crystal environments, and of those with different sequences, have shown that the movements involve local changes in the conformation of the peptides linking different domains. These changes occur in (1) the hinge regions that link the Fab fragment to the Fc, and (2) the switch regions that link the VL-VH dimer to the CL-CH1 dimer1-15. We show here that in immunoglobulins of known structure, the movement of the VL-VH dimer relative to the CL-CH1 dimer also involves the interactions of three VH and two CH1 residues that form the molecular equivalent of a ball-and-socket joint. The almost absolute conservation in the sequences of immunoglobulins and T-cell receptors of the residues that form these interactions suggests that this is a general feature of functional importance.
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