β2 microglobulin also known as B2M is a component of MHC class I molecules, MHC class I molecules have α1, α2, and α3 proteins which are present on all nucleated cells (excludes red blood cells).
In humans, the β2 microglobulin protein is encoded by the B2M gene.
β2 microglobulin lies beside the α3 chain on the cell surface. Unlike α3, β2 has no transmembrane region. Directly above β2 (that is, further away from the cell) lies the α1 chain, which itself is next to the α2.
β2 microglobulin associates not only with the alpha chain of MHC class I molecules, but also with class I-like molecules such as CD1 and Qa.
An additional function is association with the HFE protein, together regulating the expression of hepcidin in the liver which targets the iron transporter ferroportin on the cytoplasmic membrane of enterocytes and macrophages for degradation resulting in increased iron uptake from food and decreased iron release from recycled red blood cells in the MPS (mononuclear phagocyte system) respectively. Loss of this function causes iron excess and hemochromatosis.
Mice models deficient for the β2 microglobulin gene have been engineered. These mice demonstrate that β2 microglobulin is necessary for cell surface expression of MHC class I and stability of the peptide binding groove. In fact, in the absence of β2 microglobulin, very limited amounts of MHC class I (classical and non-classical) molecules can be detected on the surface. In the absence of MHC class I, CD8 T cells cannot develop. (CD8 T cells are a subset of T cells involved in the development of acquired immunity.)