- Engagement of the T cell antigen receptor (TCR) results in activation of several tyrosine kinases leading to tyrosine phosphorylation of protein substrates and activation of multiple biochemical pathways. TCR-mediated activation of the src-family kinases, Lck and Fyn, results in tyrosine phosphorylation of the TCR zeta and CD3 chains. The site of phosphorylation in these chains is the tyrosine-based activation motif (TAM), a 15-16 amino acid module containing two tyrosine residues. Tyrosine-phosphorylated TAMs serve as targets for binding of the zeta-associated protein (ZAP-70) tyrosine kinase via its tandem SH2 domains. This binding correlates with activation of ZAP-70, a critical event in T cell activation. To further define the structural requirements for ZAP-70 interaction with the TCR, we developed a binding assay using immobilized glutathione S-transferase fusion proteins containing the NH2- and/or COOH-terminal SH2 domains of ZAP-70, and soluble synthetic peptides with the sequence of the cytoplasmic region of the TCR zeta chain (TCR zeta cyt) or individual TCR zeta and CD3 epsilon TAM motifs. Direct binding studies demonstrated that the tandem ZAP-70 SH2 domains bind phosphorylated, but not nonphosphorylated, TCR zeta cyt. The NH2-terminal ZAP-70 SH2 domain also binds to TCR zeta cyt but with 100-fold lower affinity. No binding was observed with the COOH-terminal ZAP-70 SH2 domain. Similar studies demonstrated that the ZAP-70 tandem SH2 domain can bind a TCR zeta 3 TAM peptide in which both tyrosine residues are phosphorylated: Little or no binding was observed with peptides phosphorylated at only one tyrosine residue, or a nonphosphorylated peptide. Binding of the tandem SH2 domains to the other two TCR zeta TAM peptides and to a CD3 epsilon TAM peptide was also observed. All four doubly tyrosine phosphorylated TAM peptides cross-compete with each other for binding to the tandem SH2 domains of ZAP-70. The affinity of these peptides for the tandem SH2 construct demonstrated a hierarchy of TAM zeta 1 > or = TAM zeta 2 > TAM epsilon > or = TAM zeta 3. The results provide further evidence that the ZAP-70 interaction with the TCR requires prior phosphorylation of both tyrosine residues within a TAM motif. Binding of ZAP-70 to phospho-TAMs is notable for the high level of cooperativity between the two SH2 domains, which individually demonstrate low affinity interaction with the ligand. The cooperativity ensures higher affinity for the doubly phosphorylated ligand. Affinity differences of as much as 30-fold indicates a significant specificity of interaction of ZAP-70 SH2 domains for different phospho-TAMs.