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Immunogenicity of autoantigens

Christina Backes1*, Nicole Ludwig2, Petra Leidinger2, Christian Harz2, Jana Hoffmann2, Andreas Keller2, Eckart Meese2 and Hans-Peter Lenhof1

Author affiliations

1 Center for Bioinformatics, Saarland University, 66041 Saarbrücken, Germany

2 Department of Human Genetics, Saarland University, 66421 Homburg/Saar, Germany

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Citation and License

BMC Genomics 2011, 12:340  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-340

Published: 4 July 2011



Autoantibodies against self-antigens have been associated not only with autoimmune diseases, but also with cancer and are even found in healthy individuals. The mechanism causing the autoantibody response remains elusive for the majority of the immunogenic antigens. To deepen the understanding of autoantibody responses, we ask whether natural-occurring, autoimmunity-associated and tumor-associated antigens have structural or biological features related to the immune response. To this end, we have carried out the most comprehensive in-silicio study of different groups of autoantigens including large antigen sets identified by our groups combined with publicly available antigen sets.


We found evidence for an enrichment of genes with a larger exon length increasing the probability of the occurrence of potential immunogenic features such as mutations, SNPs, immunogenic sequence patterns and structural epitopes, or alternative splicing events. While SNPs seem to play a more central role in autoimmunity, somatic mutations seem to be stronger enriched in tumor-associated antigens. In addition, antigens of autoimmune diseases are different from other antigen sets in that they appear preferentially secreted, have frequently an extracellular location, and they are enriched in pathways associated with the immune system. Furthermore, for autoantibodies in general, we found enrichment of sequence-based properties including coiled-coils motifs, ELR motifs, and Zinc finger DNA-binding motifs. Moreover, we found enrichment of proteins binding to proteins or nucleic acids including RNA and enrichment of proteins that are part of ribosome or spliceosome. Both, homologies to proteins of other species and an enrichment of ancient protein domains indicate that immunogenic proteins are evolutionary conserved and that mimicry might play a central role.


Our results provide evidence that proteins which i) are evolutionary conserved, ii) show specific sequence motifs, and iii) are part of cellular structures show an increased likelihood to become autoimmunogenic.