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Natural killer cells

NK cells are a type of lymphocyte that have the ability to induce apoptosis, that is, programmed cell death, in cells infected with intracellular pathogens such as obligate intracellular bacteria and viruses. NK cells recognize these cells by mechanisms that are still not well understood, but that presumably involve their surface receptors. NK cells can induce apoptosis, in which a cascade of events inside the cell causes its own death by either of two mechanisms:

1) NK cells are able to respond to chemical signals and express the fas ligand. The fas ligand    is a surface molecule that binds to the fas molecule on the surface of the infected cell, sending it apoptotic signals, thus killing the cell and the pathogen within it; or

2) The granules of the NK cells release perforins and granzymes. A perforin    is a protein that forms pores in the membranes of infected cells. A granzyme    is a protein-digesting enzyme that enters the cell via the perforin pores and triggers apoptosis intracellularly.

Both mechanisms are especially effective against virally infected cells. If apoptosis is induced before the virus has the ability to synthesize and assemble all its components, no infectious virus will be released from the cell, thus preventing further infection.

Recognition of pathogens

Cells of the innate immune response, the phagocytic cells, and the cytotoxic NK cells recognize patterns of pathogen-specific molecules, such as bacterial cell wall components or bacterial flagellar proteins, using pattern recognition receptors. A pattern recognition receptor (PRR)    is a membrane-bound receptor that recognizes characteristic features of a pathogen and molecules released by stressed or damaged cells.

These receptors, which are thought to have evolved prior to the adaptive immune response, are present on the cell surface whether they are needed or not. Their variety, however, is limited by two factors. First, the fact that each receptor type must be encoded by a specific gene requires the cell to allocate most or all of its DNA to make receptors able to recognize all pathogens. Secondly, the variety of receptors is limited by the finite surface area of the cell membrane. Thus, the innate immune system must “get by” using only a limited number of receptors that are active against as wide a variety of pathogens as possible. This strategy is in stark contrast to the approach used by the adaptive immune system, which uses large numbers of different receptors, each highly specific to a particular pathogen.

Should the cells of the innate immune system come into contact with a species of pathogen they recognize, the cell will bind to the pathogen and initiate phagocytosis (or cellular apoptosis in the case of an intracellular pathogen) in an effort to destroy the offending microbe. Receptors vary somewhat according to cell type, but they usually include receptors for bacterial components and for complement, discussed below.

Soluble mediators of the innate immune response

The previous discussions have alluded to chemical signals that can induce cells to change various physiological characteristics, such as the expression of a particular receptor. These soluble factors are secreted during innate or early induced responses, and later during adaptive immune responses.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 04, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11496/1.8
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