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Summary

It is increasingly becoming clear that various immune cells are infected by the very pathogens that they are supposed to attack. Although many mechanisms for microbial entry exist, it appears that a common route of entry shared by certain bacteria, viruses and parasites involves cellular lipid-rich microdomains sometimes called caveolae. These cellular entities, which are characterized by their preferential accumulation of glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)-anchored molecules, cholesterol and various glycolipids, and a distinct protein (caveolin), are present in many effector cells of the immune system including neutrophils, macrophages, mast cells and dendritic cells. These structures have an innate capacity to endocytoze various ligands and traffic them to different intracellular sites and sometimes, back to the extracellular cell surface. Because caveolae do not typically fuse with lysosomes, the ligands borne by caveolar vesicles are essentially intact, which is in marked contrast to ligands endocytozed via the classical endosome–lysosome pathway. A number of microbes or their exotoxins co-opt the unique features of caveolae to enter and traffic, without any apparent loss of viability and function, to different sites within immune and other host cells. In spite of their wide disparity in size and other structural attributes, we predict that a common feature among caveolae-utilizing pathogens and toxins is that their cognate receptor(s) are localized within plasmalemmal caveolae of the host cell.