Molecular Mimicry


Molecular mimicry is structural, functional or immunological similarities shared between macromolecules found on infectious pathogens and in host tissues. Molecular mimicry plays an important role in immune responses to infection and in autoimmune diseases. Infection may induce autoimmune responses which attack and destroy body tissues or organs. Normally, the body is tolerant to self‐antigens which are present in individual tissues. In autoimmune disease, tolerance is abrogated to self‐antigens, and tissues or organs are destroyed by the immune system. Molecular mimicry of a self‐antigen by an infectious pathogen, such as bacteria and viruses, may trigger autoimmune disease due to a crossreactive immune response against the infection. Crossreactive antigen–antibody and T cell–antigen reactions are used to identify the mimicking macromolecules on the pathogen and in tissues or organs. These parameters define the concept of molecular mimicry.

Key Concepts:

  • There are three types of mimicry.

    • The first type of molecular mimicry is identical amino acid sequences present in different protein molecules.

    • The second type of molecular mimicry is due to structural similarities rather than amino acid sequence identities in the mimicking chemical structures.

    • The third type of molecular mimicry is the recognition of completely dissimilar chemical structures on separate molecules by a single antibody.

  • Immunological mimicry between dissimilar epitopes on chemically different molecules has changed the concept that an antibody molecule must recognize only a single antigenic epitope.

  • Although molecular mimicry was once thought by immunologists to be a ‘phenomenon’ or ‘nonspecific immune reaction’, mimicry is now considered to be a part of the normal immune system and plays an important role in protection against pathogens.

  • Microbial infections may activate the immune system and lead to a loss of immune tolerance which could allow expansion of high avidity crossreactive B‐ or T‐cell clones which through molecular mimicry may lead to autoimmune disease.

  • Mimicry has been shown to lead to the induction of autoantibodies which alter signalling in cells.

Keywords: molecular mimicry; immunology; infection; antibodies; autoimmunity; vaccines

Figure 1.

Anti‐idiotype (antibody 2) mimicks the bacterial and host antigen and promotes the further development of autoantibody responses.



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Further Reading

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Cunningham, Madeleine White(Sep 2009) Molecular Mimicry. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000958.pub2]