Leukocytes (white blood cells) act like independent, single-celled organisms and are the second arm of the innate immune system. The innate leukocytes include the phagocytes (macrophages, neutrophils, and dendritic cells), mast cells, eosinophils, basophils, and natural killer cells. These cells identify and eliminate pathogens, either by attacking larger pathogens through contact or by engulfing and then killing microorganisms. Innate cells are also important mediators in the activation of the adaptive immune system.
Phagocytosis is an important feature of cellular innate immunity performed by cells called 'phagocytes' that engulf, or eat, pathogens or particles. Phagocytes generally patrol the body searching for pathogens, but can be called to specific locations by cytokines. Once a pathogen has been engulfed by a phagocyte, it becomes trapped in an intracellular vesicle called a phagosome, which subsequently fuses with another vesicle called a lysosome to form a phagolysosome. The pathogen is killed by the activity of digestive enzymes or following a respiratory burst that releases free radicals into the phagolysosome. Phagocytosis evolved as a means of acquiring nutrients, but this role was extended in phagocytes to include engulfment of pathogens as a defense mechanism. Phagocytosis probably represents the oldest form of host defense, as phagocytes have been identified in both vertebrate and invertebrate animals.
Neutrophils and macrophages are phagocytes that travel throughout the body in pursuit of invading pathogens. Neutrophils are normally found in the bloodstream and are the most abundant type of phagocyte, normally representing 50% to 60% of the total circulating leukocytes. During the acute phase of inflammation, particularly as a result of bacterial infection, neutrophils migrate toward the site of inflammation in a process called chemotaxis, and are usually the first cells to arrive at the scene of infection. Macrophages are versatile cells that reside within tissues and produce a wide array of chemicals including enzymes, complement proteins, and regulatory factors such as interleukin 1. Macrophages also act as scavengers, ridding the body of worn-out cells and other debris, and as antigen-presenting cells that activate the adaptive immune system.
Dendritic cells (DC) are phagocytes in tissues that are in contact with the external environment; therefore, they are located mainly in the skin, nose, lungs, stomach, and intestines. They are named for their resemblance to neuronal dendrites, as both have many spine-like projections, but dendritic cells are in no way connected to the nervous system. Dendritic cells serve as a link between the bodily tissues and the innate and adaptive immune systems, as they present antigen to T cells, one of the key cell types of the adaptive immune system.
Mast cells reside in connective tissues and mucous membranes, and regulate the inflammatory response. They are most often associated with allergy and anaphylaxis. Basophils and eosinophils are related to neutrophils. They secrete chemical mediators that are involved in defending against parasites and play a role in allergic reactions, such as asthma. Natural killer (NK cells) cells are leukocytes that attack and destroy tumor cells, or cells that have been infected by viruses.
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