Structural insights into immunoglobulin M

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Science  28 Feb 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6481, pp. 1014-1017
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz5425

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Hefty structures of IgA and IgM complexes

Immunoglobulin M (IgM) and IgA are antibody isotypes that can form higher-order secretory complexes (sIgM and sIgA), which allows them to effectively bind and neutralize antigens with low-affinity repetitive epitopes, such as those found on the surface of many bacteria and viruses. The assembly and transport of these molecules is also dependent on the joining chain (J-chain) and the polymeric immunoglobulin receptor (pIgR) secretory component (SC). The architecture of these complex, multimeric structures has remained elusive. Li et al. resolved cryo–electron microscopy structures of the sIgM-Fc pentamer in complex with the J-chain and SC. Using similar techniques, Kumar et al. visualized dimeric, tetrameric, and pentameric structures of secretory sIgA-Fc interacting with the J-chain and SC. Both groups report highly similar mechanisms wherein the J-chain serves as a template for antibody oligomerization. An unanticipated, amyloid-like assembly of the oligomerized structure is present in both cases, with the J-chain conferring asymmetry for pIgR binding and transcytosis. These studies may inform structure-based engineering of these molecules for future therapeutic purposes.

Science, this issue p. 1014, p. 1008


Immunoglobulin M (IgM) plays a pivotal role in both humoral and mucosal immunity. Its assembly and transport depend on the joining chain (J-chain) and the polymeric immunoglobulin receptor (pIgR), but the underlying molecular mechanisms of these processes are unclear. We report a cryo–electron microscopy structure of the Fc region of human IgM in complex with the J-chain and pIgR ectodomain. The IgM-Fc pentamer is formed asymmetrically, resembling a hexagon with a missing triangle. The tailpieces of IgM-Fc pack into an amyloid-like structure to stabilize the pentamer. The J-chain caps the tailpiece assembly and bridges the interaction between IgM-Fc and the polymeric immunoglobulin receptor, which undergoes a large conformational change to engage the IgM-J complex. These results provide a structural basis for the function of IgM.

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