The forces that govern clonal selection during the genesis and maintenance of specific T cell responses are complex, but amenable to decryption by interrogation of constituent clonotypes within the antigen-experienced T cell pools. Here, we used point-mutated peptide–major histocompatibility complex class I (pMHCI) antigens, unbiased TCRB gene usage analysis, and polychromatic flow cytometry to probe directly ex vivo the clonal architecture of antigen-specific CD8+ T cell populations under conditions of persistent exposure to structurally stable virus-derived epitopes. During chronic infection with cytomegalovirus and Epstein-Barr virus, CD8+ T cell responses to immunodominant viral antigens were oligoclonal, highly skewed, and exhibited diverse clonotypic configurations; TCRB CDR3 sequence analysis indicated positive selection at the protein level. Dominant clonotypes demonstrated high intrinsic antigen avidity, defined strictly as a physical parameter, and were preferentially driven toward terminal differentiation in phenotypically heterogeneous populations. In contrast, subdominant clonotypes were characterized by lower intrinsic avidities and proportionately greater dependency on the pMHCI–CD8 interaction for antigen uptake and functional sensitivity. These findings provide evidence that interclonal competition for antigen operates in human T cell populations, while preferential CD8 coreceptor compensation mitigates this process to maintain clonotypic diversity. Vaccine strategies that reconstruct these biological processes could generate T cell populations that mediate optimal delivery of antiviral effector function
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