How precursor frequencies and antigen affinities impact interclonal B cell competition is a particularly relevant issue for candidate germline-targeting HIV vaccine designs because of the in vivo rarity of naive B cells that recognize broadly neutralizing epitopes. Knowing the frequencies and affinities of HIV-specific VRC01-class naive human B cells, we transferred B cells with germline VRC01 B cell receptors into congenic recipients to elucidate the roles of precursor frequency, antigen affinity, and avidity on B cell responses following immunization. All three factors were interdependently limiting for competitive success of VRC01-class B cells. In physiological high-affinity conditions using a multivalent immunogen, rare VRC01-class B cells successfully competed in germinal centers (GC), underwent extensive somatic hypermutation, and differentiated into memory B cells. The data reveal dominant influences of precursor frequency, affinity, and avidity for interclonal GC competition and indicate that germline-targeting immunogens can overcome these challenges with high-affinity multimeric designs.
It is not clear how precursor frequencies and antigen affinities impact interclonal B cell competition. Abbott et al. show these parameters interdependently limit germinal center B cell fitness. When these variables are matched to the human physiological range, HIV bnAb precursor B cells compete in germinal centers, undergo extensive mutation, and form memory.