The murine coronavirus neurotropic strain JHM (MHV-JHM) nucleocapsid (N) protein induces a strong T-helper cell response in Lewis rats. It has been shown previously that N-specific CD4 T cells can confer protection against acute disease upon transfer to otherwise lethally infected rats. To define the major antigenic regions that elicit this T cell response, truncated fragments of N protein were expressed from a bacterial expression vector and employed as T cell antigens. Lymphocytes from either MHV-JHM-infected or immunized rats were stimulated in culture with virus antigen, grown and tested for their specificity to the N protein fragments. The carboxy-terminally located C4-N fragment (95 amino acids) induced the most pronounced proliferative response irrespective of whether the lymphocyte culture was derived from immunized or MHV-JHM-infected rats. We established T cell lines specific for the truncated N protein fragments and tested their potential to mediate protection by transfer experiments. Only the T cell line C4-N and the T cell line specific for the full-length N protein were protective. By contrast, all truncated N protein fragments elicited a humoral immune response and contained antigenic sites recognized by antibodies from diseased rats.


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