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Keywords:

  • immune system;
  • cytokine;
  • single cell;
  • secretion;
  • cell sociology

Abstract

The immune system is a very complex and dynamic cellular system, and its intricacies are considered akin to those of human society. Disturbance of homeostasis of the immune system results in various types of diseases; therefore, the homeostatic mechanism of the immune system has long been a subject of great interest in biology, and a lot of information has been accumulated at the cellular and the molecular levels. However, the sociological aspects of the immune system remain too abstract to address because of its high complexity, which mainly originates from a large number and variety of cell–cell interactions. As long-range interactions mediated by cytokines play a key role in the homeostasis of the immune system, cytokine secretion analyses, ranging from analyses of the micro level of individual cells to the macro level of a bulk of cell ensembles, provide us with a solid basis of a sociological viewpoint of the immune system. In this review, as the first step toward a comprehensive understanding of immune cell sociology, cytokine secretion of immune cells is surveyed with a special emphasis on the single-cell level, which has been overlooked but should serve as a basis of immune cell sociology. Now that it has become evident that large cell-to-cell variations in cytokine secretion exist at the single-cell level, we face a tricky yet interesting question: How is homeostasis maintained when the system is composed of intrinsically noisy agents? In this context, we discuss how the heterogeneity of cytokine secretion at the single-cell level affects our view of immune cell sociology. While the apparent inconsistency between homeostasis and cell-to-cell heterogeneity is difficult to address by a conventional reductive approach, comparison and integration of single-cell data with macroscopic data will offer us a new direction for the comprehensive understanding of immune cell sociology. © 2012 IUBMB Life, 65(1):28–34, 2013