Non-classical major histocompatibility class Ib molecule involved in immune self-nonself discrimination. In complex with B2M/beta-2-microglobulin binds nonamer self-peptides derived from the signal sequence of classical MHC class Ia molecules (VL9 peptides). Peptide-bound HLA-E-B2M heterotrimeric complex primarily functions as a ligand for natural killer (NK) cell inhibitory receptor KLRD1-KLRC1, enabling NK cells to monitor the expression of other MHC class I molecules in healthy cells and to tolerate self. Upon cellular stress, preferentially binds signal sequence-derived peptides from stress-induced chaperones and is no longer recognized by NK cell inhibitory receptor KLRD1-KLRC1, resulting in impaired protection from NK cells. Binds signal sequence-derived peptides from non-classical MHC class Ib HLA-G molecules and acts as a ligand for NK cell activating receptor KLRD1-KLRC2, likely playing a role in the generation and effector functions of adaptive NK cells and in maternal-fetal tolerance during pregnancy. Besides self-peptides, can also bind and present pathogen-derived peptides conformationally similar to VL9 peptides to alpha-beta T cell receptor (TCR) on unconventional CD8+ cytotoxic T cells, ultimately triggering antimicrobial immune response.; (Microbial infection) Viruses like human cytomegalovirus have evolved an escape mechanism whereby virus-induced down-regulation of host MHC class I molecules is coupled to the binding of viral peptides to HLA-E, restoring HLA-E expression and inducing HLA-E-dependent NK cell immune tolerance to infected cells.; (Microbial infection) May bind HIV-1 gag/Capsid protein p24-derived peptide (AISPRTLNA) on infected cells and may inhibit NK cell cytotoxicity, a mechanism that allows HIV-1 to escape immune recognition.; (Microbial infection) Upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, may contribute to functional exhaustion of cytotoxic NK cells and CD8-positive T cells. Binds SARS-CoV-2 S/Spike protein S1-derived peptide (LQPRTFLL) expressed on the surface of lung epithelial cells, inducing NK cell exhaustion and dampening antiviral immune surveillance.