Phagocytes: Macrophages and Neutrophils

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OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Many of the cells of the immune system have a phagocytic ability, at least at some point during their life cycles. Phagocytosis is an important and effective mechanism of destroying pathogens during innate immune responses. The phagocyte takes the organism inside itself as a phagosome, which subsequently fuses with a lysosome and its digestive enzymes, effectively killing many pathogens. On the other hand, some bacteria including Mycobacteria tuberculosis, the cause of tuberculosis, may be resistant to these enzymes and are therefore much more difficult to clear from the body. Macrophages, neutrophils, and dendritic cells are the major phagocytes of the immune system.

A macrophage is an irregularly shaped phagocyte that is amoeboid in nature and is the most versatile of the phagocytes in the body. Macrophages move through tissues and squeeze through capillary walls using pseudopodia. They not only participate in innate immune responses but have also evolved to cooperate with lymphocytes as part of the adaptive immune response. Macrophages exist in many tissues of the body, either freely roaming through connective tissues or fixed to reticular fibers within specific tissues such as lymph nodes. When pathogens breach the body’s barrier defenses, macrophages are the first line of defense. They are called different names, depending on the tissue: Kupffer cells in the liver, histiocytes in connective tissue, and alveolar macrophages in the lungs.

A neutrophil is a phagocytic cell that is attracted via chemotaxis from the bloodstream to infected tissues. These spherical cells are granulocytes. A granulocyte contains cytoplasmic granules, which in turn contain a variety of vasoactive mediators such as histamine. In contrast, macrophages are agranulocytes. An agranulocyte has few or no cytoplasmic granules.

Whereas macrophages act like sentries, always on guard against infection, neutrophils can be thought of as military reinforcements that are called into a battle to hasten the destruction of the enemy. Although, usually thought of as the primary pathogen-killing cell of the inflammatory process of the innate immune response, new research has suggested that neutrophils play a role in the adaptive immune response as well, just as macrophages do.

A monocyte is a circulating precursor cell that differentiates into either a macrophage or dendritic cell, which can be rapidly attracted to areas of infection by signal molecules of inflammation.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: