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Overview of phagocytosis

Phagocytosis (from Ancient Greek φαγεῖν(phagein), meaning 'to eat',andκύτος, (kytos), meaning 'cell') is the process by which a cell uses its plasma membrane to engulf a large particle (≥ 0.5 μm) , giving rise to an internal compartment called the phagosome. It is one type of endocytosis .

Cell (biology) the basic structural and functional unit of all organisms. Includes the plasma membrane and any external encapsulating structures such as the cell wall and cell envelope.

The cell is the basic structural, functional, and biological unit of all known living organisms. A cell is the smallest unit of life. Cells are often called the "building blocks of life". The study of cells is called cell biology or cellular biology.


In cell biology, a phagosome is a vesicle formed around a particle engulfed by a phagocyte via phagocytosis. Professional phagocytes include macrophages, neutrophils, and dendritic cells (DCs). A phagosome is formed by the fusion of the cell membrane around a microorganism, a senescent cell or an apoptotic cell. Phagosomes have membrane-bound proteins to recruit and fuse with lysosomes to form mature phagolysosomes. The lysosomes contain hydrolytic enzymes and reactive oxygen species (ROS) which kill and digest the pathogens. Phagosomes can also form in non-professional phagocytes, but they can only engulf a smaller range of particles, and do not contain ROS. The useful materials from the digested particles are moved into the cytosol, and waste is removed by exocytosis. Phagosome formation is crucial for tissue homeostasis and both innate and adaptive host defense against pathogens.

Endocytosis A vesicle-mediated transport process in which cells take up external materials or membrane constituents by the invagination of a small region of the plasma membrane to form a new membrane-bounded vesicle.

Endocytosis is a cellular process in which substances are brought into the cell. The material to be internalized is surrounded by an area of plasma membrane, which then buds off inside the cell to form a vesicle containing the ingested material. Endocytosis includes pinocytosis and phagocytosis. It is a form of active transport.


In a multicellular organism's immune system, phagocytosis is a major mechanism used to remove pathogens and cell debris. The ingested material is then digested in the phagosome. Bacteria, dead tissue cells, and small mineral particles are all examples of objects that may be phagocytized. Some protozoa use phagocytosis as means to obtain nutrients.

Immune system A biological system that protects an organism against disease

The immune system is a host defense system comprising many biological structures and processes within an organism that protects against disease. To function properly, an immune system must detect a wide variety of agents, known as pathogens, from viruses to parasitic worms, and distinguish them from the organism's own healthy tissue. In many species, the immune system can be classified into subsystems, such as the innate immune system versus the adaptive immune system, or humoral immunity versus cell-mediated immunity. In humans, the blood–brain barrier, blood–cerebrospinal fluid barrier, and similar fluid–brain barriers separate the peripheral immune system from the neuroimmune system, which protects the brain.

In biology, a pathogen, in the oldest and broadest sense, is anything that can produce disease. A pathogen may also be referred to as an infectious agent, or simply a germ.

Protozoa Diverse motile unicellular heterotrophic eukaryotic organisms

Protozoa is an informal term for single-celled eukaryotes, either free-living or parasitic, which feed on organic matter such as other microorganisms or organic tissues and debris. Historically, the protozoa were regarded as "one-celled animals", because they often possess animal-like behaviors, such as motility and predation, and lack a cell wall, as found in plants and many algae. Although the traditional practice of grouping protozoa with animals is no longer considered valid, the term continues to be used in a loose way to identify single-celled organisms that can move independently and feed by heterotrophy.


Phagocytosis was first noted by Canadian physician William Osler (1876), [1] and later studied and named by Élie Metchnikoff (1880, 1883). [2]

William Osler Canadian pathologist, physician, educator, bibliophile, historian, author, cofounder of Johns Hopkins Hospital

Sir William Osler, 1st Baronet, was a Canadian physician and one of the four founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Osler created the first residency program for specialty training of physicians, and he was the first to bring medical students out of the lecture hall for bedside clinical training. He has frequently been described as the Father of Modern Medicine and one of the "greatest diagnosticians ever to wield a stethoscope". Osler was a person of many interests, who in addition to being a physician, was a bibliophile, historian, author, and renowned practical joker. One of his achievements was the founding of the History of Medicine Society of the Royal Society of Medicine, London.

Élie Metchnikoff Russian-French immunologist, embryologist, biologist, Nobel laureat

Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov was a Russian zoologist best known for his pioneering research in immunology.

In immune system

Scanning electron micrograph of a phagocyte (yellow, right) phagocytosing anthrax bacilli (orange, left) Neutrophil with anthrax copy.jpg
Scanning electron micrograph of a phagocyte (yellow, right) phagocytosing anthrax bacilli (orange, left)

Phagocytosis is one of the main mechanisms of the innate immune defense. It is one of the first processes responding to infection, and is also one of the initiating branches of an adaptive immune response. Although most cells are capable of phagocytosis, some cell types perform it as part of their main function. These are called 'professional phagocytes.' Phagocytosis is old in evolutionary terms, being present even in invertebrates. [3]

Innate immune system

The innate immune system is one of the two main immunity strategies found in vertebrates. The innate immune system is an older evolutionary defense strategy, relatively speaking, and it is the dominant immune system response found in plants, fungi, insects, and primitive multicellular organisms.

Infection invasion of a host by disease-causing organisms

Infection is the invasion of an organism's body tissues by disease-causing agents, their multiplication, and the reaction of host tissues to the infectious agents and the toxins they produce. Infectious disease, also known as transmissible disease or communicable disease, is illness resulting from an infection.

Adaptive immune system subsystem of the overall immune system that is composed of highly specialized, systemic cells and processes that eliminate pathogens or prevent their growth

The adaptive immune system, also known as the acquired immune system or, more rarely, as the specific immune system, is a subsystem of the overall immune system that is composed of highly specialized, systemic cells and processes that eliminate pathogens or prevent their growth. The acquired immune system is one of the two main immunity strategies found in vertebrates. Acquired immunity creates immunological memory after an initial response to a specific pathogen, and leads to an enhanced response to subsequent encounters with that pathogen. This process of acquired immunity is the basis of vaccination. Like the innate system, the acquired system includes both humoral immunity components and cell-mediated immunity components.

Professional phagocytic cells

Neutrophils, macrophages, monocytes, dendritic cells, osteoclasts and eosinophils can be classified as professional phagocytes. [2] The first three have the greatest role in immune response to most infections. [3]


Neutrophils are the most abundant type of granulocytes and the most abundant type of white blood cells in most mammals. They form an essential part of the innate immune system. Their functions vary in different animals.

Macrophage type of white blood cell

Macrophages are a type of white blood cell, of the immune system, that engulfs and digests cellular debris, foreign substances, microbes, cancer cells, and anything else that does not have the type of proteins specific to healthy body cells on its surface in a process called phagocytosis. These large phagocytes are found in essentially all tissues, where they patrol for potential pathogens by amoeboid movement. They take various forms throughout the body, but all are part of the mononuclear phagocyte system. Besides phagocytosis, they play a critical role in nonspecific defense and also help initiate specific defense mechanisms by recruiting other immune cells such as lymphocytes. For example, they are important as antigen presenters to T cells. In humans, dysfunctional macrophages cause severe diseases such as chronic granulomatous disease that result in frequent infections.

Monocyte type of white blood cell

Monocytes are a type of leukocyte, or white blood cell. They are the largest type of leukocyte and can differentiate into macrophages and myeloid lineage dendritic cells. As a part of the vertebrate innate immune system monocytes also influence the process of adaptive immunity. There are at least three subclasses of monocytes in human blood based on their phenotypic receptors.

The role of neutrophils is patrolling the bloodstream and rapid migration to the tissues in large numbers only in case of infection. [3] There they have direct microbicidal effect by phagocytosis. After ingestion, neutrophils are efficient in intracellular killing of pathogens. Neutrophils phagocytose mainly via the Fcγ receptors and complement receptors 1 and 3. The microbicidal effect of neutrophils is due to a large repertoire of molecules present in pre-formed granules. Enzymes and other molecules prepared in these granules are proteases, such as collagenase, gelatinase or serine proteases, myeloperoxidase, lactoferrin and antibiotic proteins. Degranulation of these into the phagosome, accompanied by high reactive oxygen species production (oxidative burst) is highly microbicidal. [4]

Collagenases are enzymes that break the peptide bonds in collagen. They assist in destroying extracellular structures in the pathogenesis of bacteria such as Clostridium. They are considered a virulence factor, facilitating the spread of gas gangrene. They normally target the connective tissue in muscle cells and other body organs.

In biology and chemistry, gelatinase is a proteolytic enzyme that allows a living organism to hydrolyse gelatin into its sub-compounds that can cross the cell membrane and be used by the organism. It is not a pepsin.

Serine protease enzyme, type of peptidase

Serine proteases are enzymes that cleave peptide bonds in proteins, in which serine serves as the nucleophilic amino acid at the (enzyme's) active site. They are found ubiquitously in both eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Serine proteases fall into two broad categories based on their structure: chymotrypsin-like (trypsin-like) or subtilisin-like. In humans, they are responsible for coordinating various physiological functions, including digestion, immune response, blood coagulation and reproduction.

Monocytes, and the macrophages that mature from them, leave blood circulation to migrate through tissues. There they are resident cells and form a resting barrier. [3] Macrophages initiate phagocytosis by mannose receptors, scavenger receptors, Fcγ receptors and complement receptors 1, 3 and 4. Macrophages are long-lived and can continue phagocytosis by forming new lysosomes. [3] [5]

Dendritic cells also reside in tissues and ingest pathogens by phagocytosis. Their role is not killing or clearance of microbes, but rather breaking them down for antigen presentation to the cells of the adaptive immune system. [3]

Initiating receptors

Receptors for phagocytosis can be divided into two categories by recognised molecules. The first, opsonic receptors, are dependent on opsonins. [6] Among these are receptors that recognise the Fc part of bound IgG antibodies, deposited complement or receptors, that recognise other opsonins of cell or plasma origin. Non-opsonic receptors include lectin-type receptors, Dectin receptor, or scavenger receptors. Some phagocytic pathways require a second signal from pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) activated by attachment to pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPS), which leads to NF-κB activation. [2]

Fcγ Receptors

Fcγ receptors recognise IgG coated targets. The main recognised part is the Fc fragment. The molecule of the receptor contain an intracellular ITAM domain or associates with an ITAM-containing adaptor molecule. ITAM domains transduce the signal from the surface of the phagocyte to the nucleus. For example activating receptors of human macrophages are FcγRI, FcγRIIA, and FcγRIII. [5] Fcγ receptor mediated phagocytosis includes formation of protrusions of the cell called a 'phagocytic cup' and activates an oxidative burst in neutrophils. [4]

Complement receptors

These receptors recognise targets coated in C3b, C4b and C3bi from plasma complement. The extracellular domain of the receptors contains a lectin-like complement-binding domain. Recognition by complement receptors is not enough to cause internalisation without additional signals. In macrophages, the CR1, CR3 and CR4 are responsible for recognition of targets. Complement coated targets are internalised by 'sinking' into the phagocyte membrane, without any protrusions. [5]

Mannose receptors

Mannose and other pathogen-associated sugars, such as fucose, are recognised by the mannose receptor. Eight lectin-like domains form the extracellular part of the receptor. The ingestion mediated by the mannose receptor is distinct in molecular mechanisms from Fcγ receptor or complement receptor mediated phagocytosis. [5]


Engulfment of material is facilitated by the actin-myosin contractile system. The phagosome is the organelle formed by phagocytosis of material. It then moves toward the centrosome of the phagocyte and is fused with lysosomes, forming a phagolysosome and leading to degradation. Progressively, the phagolysosome is acidified, activating degradative enzymes. [2] [7]

Degradation can be oxygen-dependent or oxygen-independent.

Leukocytes generate hydrogen cyanide during phagocytosis, and can kill bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens by generating several other toxic chemicals. [9] [10] [11]

Some Bacteria, for example Treponema pallidum, Escheria coli or Staphylococcus aureus, are able to avoid phagocytosis by several mechanisms.

In apoptosis

Following apoptosis, the dying cells need to be taken up into the surrounding tissues by macrophages in a process called efferocytosis. One of the features of an apoptotic cell is the presentation of a variety of intracellular molecules on the cell surface, such as calreticulin, phosphatidylserine (from the inner layer of the plasma membrane), annexin A1, oxidised LDL and altered glycans. [12] These molecules are recognised by receptors on the cell surface of the macrophage such as the phosphatidylserine receptor or by soluble (free-floating) receptors such as thrombospondin 1, GAS6, and MFGE8, which themselves then bind to other receptors on the macrophage such as CD36 and alpha-v beta-3 integrin. Defects in apoptotic cell clearance is usually associated with impaired phagocytosis of macrophages. Accumulation of apoptotic cell remnants often causes autoimmune disorders; thus pharmacological potentiation of phagocytosis has a medical potential in treatment of certain forms of autoimmune disorders. [13] [14] [15] [16]

Trophozoites of Entamoeba histolytica with ingested erythrocytes Trophozoites of Entamoeba histolytica with ingested erythrocytes.JPG
Trophozoites of Entamoeba histolytica with ingested erythrocytes

In protists

In many protists, phagocytosis is used as a means of feeding, providing part or all of their nourishment. This is called phagotrophic nutrition, distinguished from osmotrophic nutrition which takes place by absorption.[ citation needed ]

As in phagocytic immune cells, the resulting phagosome may be merged with lysosomes containing digestive enzymes, forming a phagolysosome. The food particles will then be digested, and the released nutrients are diffused or transported into the cytosol for use in other metabolic processes. [18]

Mixotrophy can involve phagotrophic nutrition and phototrophic nutrition. [19]

See also

Related Research Articles

Phagocyte Cells that protect the body by ingesting harmful foreign particles, bacteria, and dead or dying cells

Phagocytes are cells that protect the body by ingesting harmful foreign particles, bacteria, and dead or dying cells. Their name comes from the Greek phagein, "to eat" or "devour", and "-cyte", the suffix in biology denoting "cell", from the Greek kutos, "hollow vessel". They are essential for fighting infections and for subsequent immunity. Phagocytes are important throughout the animal kingdom and are highly developed within vertebrates. One litre of human blood contains about six billion phagocytes. They were discovered in 1882 by Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov while he was studying starfish larvae. Mechnikov was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery. Phagocytes occur in many species; some amoebae behave like macrophage phagocytes, which suggests that phagocytes appeared early in the evolution of life.

Granulocyte mature white blood cells with granules in the cytoplasm

Granulocytes are a category of white blood cells characterized by the presence of granules in their cytoplasm. They are also called polymorphonuclear leukocytes or polymorphonuclear neutrophils because of the varying shapes of the nucleus, which is usually lobed into three segments. This distinguishes them from the mononuclear agranulocytes. In common parlance, the term polymorphonuclear leukocyte often refers specifically to "neutrophil granulocytes", the most abundant of the granulocytes; the other types have lower numbers. Granulocytes are produced via granulopoiesis in the bone marrow.

Kupffer cell macrophages located in the liver

Kupffer cells, also known as stellate macrophages and Kupffer–Browicz cells, are specialized macrophages located in the liver, lining the walls of the sinusoids. They form part of the mononuclear phagocyte system.


An opsonin is any molecule that enhances phagocytosis by marking an antigen for an immune response or marking dead cells for recycling. Opson in ancient Greece referred to the delicious side-dish of any meal, versus the sitos, or the staple of the meal.

Antibody opsonization

Antibody opsonization is the process by which the pathogen is marked for ingestion and eliminated by the phagocytes.

Fc receptor

An Fc receptor is a protein found on the surface of certain cells – including, among others, B lymphocytes, follicular dendritic cells, natural killer cells, macrophages, neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils, human platelets, and mast cells – that contribute to the protective functions of the immune system. Its name is derived from its binding specificity for a part of an antibody known as the Fc region. Fc receptors bind to antibodies that are attached to infected cells or invading pathogens. Their activity stimulates phagocytic or cytotoxic cells to destroy microbes, or infected cells by antibody-mediated phagocytosis or antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity. Some viruses such as flaviviruses use Fc receptors to help them infect cells, by a mechanism known as antibody-dependent enhancement of infection.

Phagolysosome A membrane-bounded intracellular vesicle formed by maturation of an early phagosome following the ingestion of particulate material by phagocytosis; during maturation, phagosomes acquire markers of late endosomes and lysosomes.

In biology, a phagolysosome, or endolysosome, is a cytoplasmic body formed by the fusion of a phagosome with a lysosome in a process that occurs during phagocytosis. Formation of phagolysosomes is essential for the intracellular destruction of microorganisms and pathogens. It takes place when the phagosome's and lysosome's membranes 'collide', at which point the lysosomal contents—including hydrolytic enzymes—are discharged into the phagosome in an explosive manner and digest the particles that the phagosome had ingested. Some products of the digestion are useful materials and are moved into the cytoplasm; others are exported by exocytosis.

Alveolar macrophage macrophage found in the pulmonary alveolus

An alveolar macrophage is a type of macrophage found in the pulmonary alveolus, near the pneumocytes, but separated from the wall.

Collectins (collagen-containing C-type lectins) are a part of the innate immune system. They form a family of collagenous Ca2+-dependent defense lectins, which are found in animals. Collectins are soluble pattern recognition receptors (PRRs). Their function is to bind to oligosaccharide structure or lipids that are on the surface of microorganisms. Like other PRRs they bind pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) and danger-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs) of oligosaccharide origin. Binding of collectins to microorganisms may trigger elimination of microorganisms by aggregation, complement activation, opsonization, activation of phagocytosis, or inhibition of microbial growth. Other functions of collectins are modulation of inflammatory, allergic responses, adaptive immune system and clearance of apoptotic cells.

The mannose receptor is a C-type lectin primarily present on the surface of macrophages, immature dendritic cells and liver sinusoidal endothelial cells, but is also expressed on the surface of skin cells such as human dermal fibroblasts and keratinocytes. It is the first member of a family of endocytic receptors that includes Endo180 (CD280), M-type PLA2R, and DEC-205 (CD205).


C3b is the larger of two elements formed by the cleavage of complement component 3, and is considered an important part of the innate immune system. C3b is potent in opsonization: tagging pathogens, immune complexes (antigen-antibody), and apoptotic cells for phagocytosis. Additionally, C3b plays a role in forming a C3 convertase when bound to Factor B, or a C5 convertase when bound to C4b and C2b or when an additional C3b molecule binds to the C3bBb complex.

CD16, also known as FcγRIII, is a cluster of differentiation molecule found on the surface of natural killer cells, neutrophil polymorphonuclear leukocytes, monocytes and macrophages. CD16 has been identified as Fc receptors FcγRIIIa (CD16a) and FcγRIIIb (CD16b), which participate in signal transduction. The most well-researched membrane receptor implicated in triggering lysis by NK cells, CD16 is a molecule of the immunoglobulin superfamily (IgSF) involved in antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity (ADCC). It can be used to isolate populations of specific immune cells through fluorescent-activated cell sorting (FACS) or magnetic-activated cell sorting, using antibodies directed towards CD16.

Macrophage-1 antigen is a complement receptor ("CR3") consisting of CD11b and CD18.

A non-specific immune cell is an immune cell that responds to many antigens, not just one antigen. Non-specific immune cells function in the first line of defense against infection or injury. The innate immune system is always present at the site of infection and ready to fight the bacteria; it can also be referred to as the "natural" immune system. The cells of the innate immune system do not have specific responses and respond to each foreign invader using the same mechanism. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Apoptotic-cell associated molecular patterns (ACAMPs) are molecular markers present on cells which are going through apoptosis, i.e. programmed cell death. The term was used for the first time by C. D. Gregory in 2000. Recognition of these patterns by the pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) of phagocytes then leads to phagocytosis of the apoptotic cell. These patterns include eat-me signals on the apoptotic cells, loss of don’t-eat-me signals on viable cells and come-get-me signals ) secreted by the apoptotic cells in order to attract phagocytes. Thanks to these markers, apoptotic cells, unlike necrotic cells, do not trigger the unwanted immune response.

Phagoptosis is a type of cell death caused by the cell being phagocytosed by another cell, and therefore this form of cell death is prevented by blocking phagocytosis.


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