"Untitled (Green Silver)” - Jackson Pollock
“Untitled (Green Silver)” – Jackson Pollock

In the past few weeks not only did I post a short update on the DRiPs hypothesis here, but coincidentally a bunch of papers on DRiPs have also been published. I’ll probably cover some of these in more detail at some point, but here are some of the recent papers and my brief comments.

Just as a reminder: the DRiPs (“Defective ribosomal products”) hypothesis proposes that most of the peptides presented to cytotoxic T lymphocytes don’t come from the actual proteins that we normally measure — rather, the immunologically relevant peptides come from deformed and defective proteins that are mis-read and misfolded during their translation. (More explanation of DRiPs here and here; more explanation of how T cells recognize cells and where peptides come in, here.)

Jon Yewdell’s insight,1 which is still somewhat controversial, was that defective proteins may actually be very common. Instead of being rare and abnormal events, he argued, protein production is a highly error-prone business, and a large fraction of newly synthesized proteins are broken. These defective products are very rapidly recycled into peptides and amino acids, and because of this rapid recycling they are the major source of peptides for T cell recognition.

On his original publication I had no problem with the underlying concept, but wasn’t overwhelmed by the data, and felt that there were too many counterexamples; since then he, and others, have put forward more and more examples, and I think it’s also fair to say that Jon has softened a little on the original hypothesis.2 I’m more or less convinced that DRiPs are one important source of peptides, though I remain dubious that they are the only, or (and here I get very uncertain) even the major source.

Anyway, in the past few weeks, we’ve seen these papers:

  • The Synthesis of Truncated Polypeptides for Immune Surveillance and Viral Evasion3

This is from Nilabh Shastri, and it’s not a big conceptual departure from some of his previous work. He’s argued for quite a while that aberrant proteins are major sources of T cell targets (see my posts here and here, for examples). Here he extends the argument to the EBNA1 protein from Epstein-Barr virus. This is a remarkably interesting protein for many reasons, one of which is that there’s reason to believe that DRiPs must be the only real source of T cell targets from EBNA1. Here, Shastri shows that in fact DRiPs (in the forms of truncated synthesis products) are in fact targets for T cells (“Thus, translation of viral mRNAs as truncated polypeptides is important for determining the antigenicity of virus proteins“). (I don’t know if it’s fair to generalize to all viral mRNAs from this very unusual protein, though.)  Very intriguingly, he also shows that DRiPs seem to be specifically blocked by EBNA1 mRNA!

Regulating production of DRiPs at the level of mRNA translation may serve as an immune evasion strategy for latent viruses. …  It is tempting to speculate that episome maintenance proteins, found in herpesviruses of various species, might have evolved to inhibit pMHC I presentation by interfering with production of DRiPs.

Is this a new viral immune evasion mechanism? And if so, how widespread is it? I know Nilabh (or someone from his lab) reads this blog occasionally, and I’d be interested in hearing their ideas on this — is it pure speculation, or do they have reason to extend the observation?

  • Viral adaptation to immune selection pressure by HLA class I–restricted CTL responses targeting epitopes in HIV frameshift sequences4
HIV-1 frameshift inducing element
HIV-1 frameshift inducing element

These authors looked at proteins produced by reading frame shifts from HIV.  Although HIV does a lot of frame-shifting “deliberately”, here we’re looking at frame-shifts that are (probably) not “real”.  That is, while it’s possible that some of these proteins have a biological function, for the most part they’re probably nonsense proteins, the product of incorrect selection of reading frames by the ribosome, and therefore you’d expect them to be recognized as improper proteins by the quality-control system and rapidly destroyed. In that sense they fit into the “DRiPs” concept. This fits neatly with Shastri’s previous work on frame-shifting, as well as providing modest support of the DRiPs concept.

The interesting thing here is that this paper offers evidence for large-scale immunological importance of peptides from frame-shifted proteins.  Shastri has previously shown convincing evidence that peptides derived from frame-shifted proteins can be recognized by T cells, but I always wondered if that was just a test-tube novelty. In this paper, though, Berger et al. argue that these frame-shifted potential targets show evidence of evolutionary selection, suggesting that they are recognized often enough to be a significant factor in the viral life-cycle.

  • CD8 T cell response and evolutionary pressure to HIV-1 cryptic epitopes derived from antisense transcription. 5

And this is a very similar paper, showing the same thing for antisense-derived peptides. Like the frame-shifted proteins discussed above, these antisense proteins would probably be nonsense and rapidly degraded — defective ribosomal products, in other words — and again, there’s some evidence that these are under immunological selection, suggesting that this recognition is a real-world phenomenon.

These findings indicate that the HIV-1 genome might encode and deploy a large potential repertoire of unconventional epitopes to enhance vaccine-induced antiviral immunity.5

  • The antiviral factor APOBEC3G improves CTL recognition of cultured HIV-infected T cells. 6

This is a particularly cool paper.7 We know that APOBEC3G — a host protein that evolved, apparently, to provide protection against infection with retroviruses such as HIV — acts by driving hypermutation of infecting retroviral genomes. HIV resists this effect through its protein vif, which in turn drives rapid degradation of several APOBECs.

But in spite of this vif-mediated protection, it’s probably true that APOBECs still have some effect on HIV, especially very early in an infection before vif can take them out; so there’s a background of mutation in HIV driven by APOBECs. This paper shows that APOBEC-driven mutation improves T cell recognition of HIV-infected cells, and the effect is probably because the mutations force HIV to make even more defective proteins, so that there are more T cell targets. This was done in rather an artificial system (mainly by either eliminating vif altogether, or by cranking up the levels of APOBEC3G artificially), so it’s not clear how important it would be in a natural infection.

I also wonder if this argues against the notion that DRiPs are normally a big factor, because if so the background of DRiP-derived peptides should be quite high and increasing it might not be a big factor; but that’s a quantitative issue that’s hard to deal with. Still, an interesting take on antiviral effects.

  • Defective Ribosomal Products Are the Major Source of Antigenic Peptides Endogenously Generated from Influenza A Virus Neuraminidase 8
"Drips" (Inger Taylor)
“Drips” (Inger Taylor)

This is the paper that most explicitly tests DRiPs, which is not surprising, since it comes from Jon Yewdell himself.9 The paper starts with quite a fair summary of the hypothesis’s status, including some of the problems with previous experiments:

In all of these studies, we used recombinant vaccinia viruses (VVs) to express SIINFEKL-containing source Ags. It is possible that we grossly overestimated the contribution of DRiPs to Ag processing in these studies due to the use of VV to express non-VV genes. We recently showed that differences in viral translation mechanisms can greatly increase the fraction of DRiPs; expression of influenza A virus (IAV) nuclear protein by an Alphavirus vector resulted in the defective translation of >50% of nuclear protein recovered from cells. VV expression is known to modify the Ag processing pathway of some inserted viral gene products compared with their natural infection context. Further, the fusion of multiple genes to create chimeric proteins can greatly decrease the fidelity of protein synthesis or protein folding …8

In an attempt to get around some of these problems, they tried to come up with a more natural system.  What they built is more natural, but still is fairly artificial (as they acknowledge); still, their findings did add more support to the basic idea. (As a sign that Jon has softened his position some in the past decade, their comment “Although DRiPs are clearly a major source of antigenic peptides, it is important to recognize that peptides are also generated from natural protein turnover” is one that I think all but the most hardened anti-DRiPers would agree with; it’s coming down to a question of quantitation, of what “major” actually means, rather than absolutes.)

I still suspect that there are cases where DRiPs are critical, and cases where they’re not particularly important, and I don’t have a good sense for how many instances of each there are. My gut feeling is about half and half, but it’s not something I’d defend with my life.


  1. Yewdell, J. W., Aton, L. C., and Benink, J. R. (1996). Defective ribosomal products (DRiPs): A major source of antigenic peptides for MHC class I molecules? J. Immunol. 157, 1823-1826[]
  2. Which has made it a bit of a moving target when it comes to disproving it, unfortunately[]
  3. Cardinaud, S., Starck, S., Chandra, P., & Shastri, N. (2010). The Synthesis of Truncated Polypeptides for Immune Surveillance and Viral Evasion PLoS ONE, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008692[]
  4. Berger, C., Carlson, J., Brumme, C., Hartman, K., Brumme, Z., Henry, L., Rosato, P., Piechocka-Trocha, A., Brockman, M., Harrigan, P., Heckerman, D., Kaufmann, D., & Brander, C. (2010). Viral adaptation to immune selection pressure by HLA class I-restricted CTL responses targeting epitopes in HIV frameshift sequences Journal of Experimental Medicine, 207 (1), 61-75 DOI: 10.1084/jem.20091808[]
  5. Bansal, A., Carlson, J., Yan, J., Akinsiku, O., Schaefer, M., Sabbaj, S., Bet, A., Levy, D., Heath, S., Tang, J., Kaslow, R., Walker, B., Ndung’u, T., Goulder, P., Heckerman, D., Hunter, E., & Goepfert, P. (2010). CD8 T cell response and evolutionary pressure to HIV-1 cryptic epitopes derived from antisense transcription Journal of Experimental Medicine, 207 (1), 51-59 DOI: 10.1084/jem.20092060[][]
  6. Casartelli, N., Guivel-Benhassine, F., Bouziat, R., Brandler, S., Schwartz, O., & Moris, A. (2009). The antiviral factor APOBEC3G improves CTL recognition of cultured HIV-infected T cells Journal of Experimental Medicine, 207 (1), 39-49 DOI: 10.1084/jem.20091933[]
  7. I’m presenting this one on Friday in the Immunology Journal Club I run here.[]
  8. Dolan, B., Li, L., Takeda, K., Bennink, J., & Yewdell, J. (2009). Defective Ribosomal Products Are the Major Source of Antigenic Peptides Endogenously Generated from Influenza A Virus Neuraminidase The Journal of Immunology, 184 (3), 1419-1424 DOI: 10.4049/jimmunol.0901907[][]
  9. Interestingly, it looks as if Jon has turned his attention back to influenza viruses in the past year — he cut his teeth on influenza, quite a number of years back, but it hasn’t been his main focus for a while. I guess H1N1 gave him the excuse he needed to move back that way.[]