17: Innate Nonspecific Host Defenses - Biology

17: Innate Nonspecific Host Defenses - Biology

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17: Innate Nonspecific Host Defenses

Innate immune system

The innate immune system provides an immediate, nonspecific first line of defense against pathogens. It operates based on inherited cellular receptors that respond to broad pathogen-related patterns and common threat signals. The innate immune system develops in utero and, unlike the adaptive (acquired) immune system, does not require imprinting or adaptation to specific antigens nor does it provide permanent pathogen-specific immunity. For this reason, it is also referred to as “nonspecific immunity.” Response to pathogens is rapid, occurring within minutes to hours of exposure. The innate immune system comprises physical, chemical, and biological barriers (e.g., the skin, gastric acid, commensal organisms ) and both cellular (e.g., granulocytes, natural killer cells, mast cells) and humoral (complement system) defense mechanisms.

Physical Barriers

​Physical barriers play an important role in preventing microbes from reaching tissues that are susceptible to infection. At the cellular level, barriers consist of cells that are tightly joined to prevent invaders from crossing through to deeper tissue. For example, the endothelial cells that line blood vessels have very tight cell-to-cell junctions, blocking microbes from gaining access to the bloodstream. Cell junctions are generally composed of cell membrane proteins that may connect with the extracellular matrix or with complementary proteins from neighboring cells. Tissues in various parts of the body have different types of cell junctions. These include tight junctions, desmosomes, and gap junctions, as illustrated in Figure 1. Invading microorganisms may attempt to break down these substances chemically, using enzymes such as proteases that can cause structural damage to create a point of entry for pathogens.

Figure 1. There are multiple types of cell junctions in human tissue, three of which are shown here. Tight junctions rivet two adjacent cells together, preventing or limiting material exchange through the spaces between them. Desmosomes have intermediate fibers that act like shoelaces, tying two cells together, allowing small materials to pass through the resulting spaces. Gap junctions are channels between two cells that permit their communication via signals. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)​

The Skin Barrier

​One of the body’s most important physical barriers is the skin barrier, which is composed of three layers of closely packed cells. The thin upper layer is called the epidermis. A second, thicker layer, called the dermis, contains hair follicles, sweat glands, nerves, and blood vessels. A layer of fatty tissue called the hypodermis lies beneath the dermis and contains blood and lymph vessels (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Human skin has three layers, the epidermis, the dermis, and the hypodermis, which provide a thick barrier between microbes outside the body and deeper tissues. Dead skin cells on the surface of the epidermis are continually shed, taking with them microbes on the skin’s surface. (credit: modification of work by National Institutes of Health)​

​The topmost layer of skin, the epidermis, consists of cells that are packed with keratin. These dead cells remain as a tightly connected, dense layer of protein-filled cell husks on the surface of the skin. The keratin makes the skin’s surface mechanically tough and resistant to degradation by bacterial enzymes. Fatty acids on the skin’s surface create a dry, salty, and acidic environment that inhibits the growth of some microbes and is highly resistant to breakdown by bacterial enzymes. In addition, the dead cells of the epidermis are frequently shed, along with any microbes that may be clinging to them. Shed skin cells are continually replaced with new cells from below, providing a new barrier that will soon be shed in the same way.

Infections can occur when the skin barrier is compromised or broken. A wound can serve as a point of entry for opportunistic pathogens, which can infect the skin tissue surrounding the wound and possibly spread to deeper tissues.


​Mike, a gardener from southern California, recently noticed a small red bump on his left forearm. Initially, he did not think much of it, but soon it grew larger and then ulcerated (opened up), becoming a painful lesion that extended across a large part of his forearm (Figure 3). He went to an urgent care facility, where a physician asked about his occupation. When he said he was a landscaper, the physician immediately suspected a case of sporotrichosis, a type of fungal infection known as rose gardener’s disease because it often afflicts landscapers and gardening enthusiasts.

Under most conditions, fungi cannot produce skin infections in healthy individuals. Fungi grow filaments known as hyphae, which are not particularly invasive and can be easily kept at bay by the physical barriers of the skin and mucous membranes. However, small wounds in the skin, such as those caused by thorns, can provide an opening for opportunistic pathogens like Sporothrix schenkii,a soil-dwelling fungus and the causative agent of rose gardener’s disease. Once it breaches the skin barrier, S. schenkii can infect the skin and underlying tissues, producing ulcerated lesions like Mike’s. Compounding matters, other pathogens may enter the infected tissue, causing secondary bacterial infections.

Luckily, rose gardener’s disease is treatable. Mike’s physician wrote him a prescription for some antifungal drugs as well as a course of antibiotics to combat secondary bacterial infections. His lesions eventually healed, and Mike returned to work with a new appreciation for gloves and protective clothing.

Figure 3. Rose gardener’s disease can occur when the fungus Sporothrix schenkii breaches the skin through small cuts, such as might be inflicted by thorns. (credit left: modification of work by Elisa Self credit right: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)​​

Inflammation-Eliciting Mediators

​Many of the chemical mediators discussed in this section contribute in some way to inflammation and fever, which are nonspecific immune responses discussed in more detail in Inflammation and Fever. Cytokines stimulate the production of acute-phase proteins such as C-reactive protein and mannose-binding lectin in the liver. These acute-phase proteins act as opsonins, activating complement cascades through the lectin pathway.

Some cytokines also bind mast cells and basophils, inducing them to release histamine, a proinflammatory compound. Histamine receptors are found on a variety of cells and mediate proinflammatory events, such as bronchoconstriction (tightening of the airways) and smooth muscle contraction.

In addition to histamine, mast cells may release other chemical mediators, such as leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are lipid-based proinflammatory mediators that are produced from the metabolism of arachidonic acid in the cell membrane of leukocytes and tissue cells. Compared with the proinflammatory effects of histamine, those of leukotrienes are more potent and longer lasting. Together, these chemical mediators can induce coughing, vomiting, and diarrhea, which serve to expel pathogens from the body.

​Certain cytokines also stimulate the production of prostaglandins, chemical mediators that promote the inflammatory effects of kinins and histamines. Prostaglandins can also help to set the body temperature higher, leading to fever, which promotes the activities of white blood cells and slightly inhibits the growth of pathogenic microbes (see Inflammation and Fever).

​Another inflammatory mediator, bradykinin, contributes to edema, which occurs when fluids and leukocytes leak out of the bloodstream and into tissues. It binds to receptors on cells in the capillary walls, causing the capillaries to dilate and become more permeable to fluids.

  • What do the three complement activation pathways have in common?
  • Explain autocrine, paracrine, and endocrine signals.
  • Name two important inflammation-eliciting mediators.


​To relieve the constriction of her airways, Angela is immediately treated with antihistamines and administered corticosteroids through an inhaler, and then monitored for a period of time. Though her condition does not worsen, the drugs do not seem to be alleviating her condition. She is admitted to the hospital for further observation, testing, and treatment.

Following admission, a clinician conducts allergy testing to try to determine if something in her environment might be triggering an allergic inflammatory response. A doctor orders blood analysis to check for levels of particular cytokines. A sputum sample is also taken and sent to the lab for microbial staining, culturing, and identification of pathogens that could be causing an infection.

  • Which aspects of the innate immune system could be contributing to Angela’s airway constriction?
  • Why was Angela treated with antihistamines?
  • Why would the doctor be interested in levels of cytokines in Angela’s blood?

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​Table provides a summary of the chemical defenses discussed in this section.

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