Computational Model Reveals a Stochastic Mechanism behind Germinal Center Clonal Bursts

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Germinal centers (GCs) are specialized compartments within the secondary lymphoid organs where B cells proliferate, differentiate, and mutate their antibody genes in response to the presence of foreign antigens. Through the GC lifespan, interclonal competition between B cells leads to increased affinity of the B cell receptors for antigens accompanied by a loss of clonal diversity, although the mechanisms underlying clonal dynamics are not completely understood. We present here a multi-scale quantitative model of the GC reaction that integrates an intracellular component, accounting for the genetic events that shape B cell differentiation, and an extracellular stochastic component, which accounts for the random cellular interactions within the GC. In addition, B cell receptors are represented as sequences of nucleotides that mature and diversify through somatic hypermutations. We exploit extensive experimental characterizations of the GC dynamics to parameterize our model, and visualize affinity maturation by means of evolutionary phylogenetic trees. Our explicit modeling of B cell maturation enables us to characterise the evolutionary processes and competition at the heart of the GC dynamics, and explains the emergence of clonal dominance as a result of initially small stochastic advantages in the affinity to antigen. Interestingly, a subset of the GC undergoes massive expansion of higher-affinity B cell variants (clonal bursts), leading to a loss of clonal diversity at a significantly faster rate than in GCs that do not exhibit clonal dominance. Our work contributes towards an in silico vaccine design, and has implications for the better understanding of the mechanisms underlying autoimmune disease and GC-derived lymphomas.