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Function of Class I MHC
Class I MHC molecules bind peptides generated mainly from degradation of cytosolic proteins by the proteasome. The MHC I:peptide complex is then inserted into the plasma membrane of the cell. The peptide is bound to the extracellular part of the class I MHC molecule. Thus, the function of the class I MHC is to display intracellular proteins to cytotoxic T cells (CTLs). However, class I MHC can also present peptides generated from exogenous proteins, in a process known as cross-presentation.
A normal cell will display peptides from normal cellular protein turnover on its class I MHC, and CTLs will not be activated in response to them due to central and peripheral tolerance mechanisms. When a cell expresses foreign proteins, such as after viral infection, a fraction of the class I MHC will display these peptides on the cell surface. Consequently, CTLs specific for the MHC:peptide complex will recognize and kill the presenting cell.
Alternatively, class I MHC itself can serve as an inhibitory ligand for natural killer cells (NKs). Reduction in the normal levels of surface class I MHC, a mechanism employed by some viruses during immune evasion or in certain tumors, will activate NK cell killing.