MHC stands for major histocompatibility complex, and it is a group of genes located on chromosome 6 in humans that plays a critical role in the immune system. These genes code for molecules called MHC molecules, also known as human leukocyte antigens (HLA), which are cell surface proteins that present antigens to T cells.
There are two classes of MHC molecules: class I and class II. Class I MHC molecules are found on almost all nucleated cells and present intracellular antigens, such as viral or tumor antigens, to cytotoxic T cells. Class II MHC molecules are found only on dendritic cells, macrophages, and B cells, and present extracellular antigens, such as bacterial antigens, to helper T cells.
The structure of MHC molecules is highly polymorphic, meaning that there are many different variants of MHC molecules in a population. This variability ensures that the immune system can recognize a wide range of antigens. MHC molecules have a highly conserved structure consisting of two domains: an alpha chain and a beta chain. Each chain has a groove that binds to the antigen, forming a complex that is presented to T cells.
The function of MHC molecules is to present antigens to T cells and initiate an immune response. When a foreign antigen is detected, the antigen is engulfed by an antigen-presenting cell such as a dendritic cell or macrophage. The antigen is then broken down into peptide fragments and presented on the surface of the cell in the groove of an MHC molecule. T cells recognize the antigen-MHC complex and are activated to either destroy the infected cell or activate other immune cells to mount an immune response.
In conclusion, MHC molecules are critical components of the immune system that play a crucial role in initiating and regulating immune responses. By presenting antigens to T cells, MHC molecules ensure that the immune system can detect and respond to a wide range of pathogens and foreign substances.