Single-domain antibodies (VHHs or nanobodies), developed from heavy chain-only antibodies of camelids, are gaining attention as next-generation therapeutic agents. Despite their small size, the high affinity and specificity displayed by VHHs for antigen molecules rival those of IgGs. How such small antibodies achieve that level of performance? Structural studies have revealed that VHHs tend to recognize concave surfaces of their antigens with high shape-complementarity. However, the energetic contribution of individual residues located at the binding interface has not been addressed in detail, obscuring the actual mechanism by which VHHs target the concave surfaces of proteins. Herein, we show that a VHH specific for hen egg lysozyme, D3-L11, not only displayed the characteristic binding of VHHs to a concave region of the surface of the antigen, but also exhibited a distribution of energetic hot-spots like those of IgGs and conventional protein-protein complexes. The highly preorganized and energetically compact interface of D3-L11 recognizes the concave epitope with high shape complementarity by the classical lock-and-key mechanism. Our results shed light on the fundamental basis by which a particular VHH accommodate to the concave surface of an antigens with high affinity in a specific manner, enriching the mechanistic landscape of VHHs.
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