The Natural Killer Cells


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NK cells have both inhibitory and activating receptors. Normal cells have signals on their MHC molecules that bind to the inhibitory receptors; so the NK cell does not kill them. Cells that are infected with virus have ligands that bind to the activating receptor; this causes the NK cell to kill them.
Natural killer (NK) cells are inhibited by the presence of the major histocompatibility cell (MHC) receptor on healthy cells. Cancer cells and virus-infected cells have reduced expression of MHC and increased expression of activating molecules. When a NK cell recognizes decreased MHC and increased activating molecules, it will kill the abnormal cell.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

Most lymphocytes are primarily involved in the specific adaptive immune response. An exception is the natural killer cells (NK cells); these mononuclear lymphocytes use nonspecific mechanisms to recognize and destroy cells that are abnormal in some way. Cancer cells and cells infected with viruses are two examples of cellular abnormalities that are targeted by NK cells. Recognition of such cells involves a complex process of identifying inhibitory and activating molecular markers on the surface of the target cell. Molecular markers that make up the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) are expressed by healthy cells as an indication of “self.” NK cells are able to recognize normal MHC markers on the surface of healthy cells, and these MHC markers serve as an inhibitory signal preventing NK cell activation. However, cancer cells and virus-infected cells actively diminish or eliminate expression of MHC markers on their surface. When these MHC markers are diminished or absent, the NK cell interprets this as an abnormality and a cell in distress. This is one part of the NK cell activation process. NK cells are also activated by binding to activating molecular molecules on the target cell. These activating molecular molecules include “altered self” or “nonself” molecules. When a NK cell recognizes a decrease in inhibitory normal MHC molecules and an increase in activating molecules on the surface of a cell, the NK cell will be activated to eliminate the cell in distress.

Once a cell has been recognized as a target, the NK cell can use several different mechanisms to kill its target. For example, it may express cytotoxic membrane proteins and cytokines that stimulate the target cell to undergo apoptosis, or controlled cell suicide. NK cells may also use perforin-mediated cytotoxicity to induce apoptosis in target cells. This mechanism relies on two toxins released from granules in the cytoplasm of the NK cell: perforin, a protein that creates pores in the target cell, and granzymes, proteases that enter through the pores into the target cell’s cytoplasm, where they trigger a cascade of protein activation that leads to apoptosis. The NK cell binds to the abnormal target cell, releases its destructive payload, and detaches from the target cell. While the target cell undergoes apoptosis, the NK cell synthesizes more perforin and proteases to use on its next target.

NK cells contain these toxic compounds in granules in their cytoplasm. When stained, the granules are azurophilic and can be visualized under a light microscope. Even though they have granules, NK cells are not considered granulocytes because their granules are far less numerous than those found in true granulocytes. Furthermore, NK cells have a different lineage than granulocytes, arising from lymphoid rather than myeloid stem cells.

Many red blood cells with a single larger cell. The larger cell is pink with a purple region that fills nearly the entire cell. The purple region is labeled perforin-containing granules.
Many red blood cells with a single larger cell. The larger cell is pink with a purple region that fills nearly the entire cell. The purple region is labeled perforin-containing granules.Natural killer cell with perforin-containing granules. (credit: modification of work by Rolstad B)


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: