The first step against infection is the detection of microorganisms capable of causing disease. This is done through the recognition of molecular structures not shared by the host, but also present in other harmless or even useful microbes. A question that has puzzled scientists for many years is how the host knows exactly against which microbes to mount an immune response. But now, in the November issue of Nature Immunology, scientists describe for the first time an ingenious bacteria-recognition mechanism by epithelial cells, which allows the distinction to be made between dangerous and innocuous bacteria.
The innate immune system is the mammals’ first line of defence as it can be mobilised almost immediately, and so has a crucial role in the prevention and/or fight of infection. Key players in the recognition of bacteria are two families of receptors: Toll-like receptors (TLR), which are normally expressed in cell membranes, and the nucleotide-binding oligomerization domain (Nod) family, found in the cytoplasm.
A simple system by which the innate immune system can differentiate between pathogenic (disease-inducing) and non-pathogenic bacteria is by selective expression of these receptors. For example, TLR and Nod receptors, specific for bacterial molecular components, are expressed in sterile areas of the body like the internal organs, the bloodstream or the cytoplasm. The logic behind this is that if bacteria are found at those locations it would be as result of an infection and consequently an immune response should be mounted. This differential receptor expression however, can not explain how in places like the digestive system, where a varied population of both pathogenic and non-pathogenic extracellular bacteria exist, we are still able to discriminate and attack only the those which can induce disease.
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