Neutrophils (PMNs) are frequently involved in the elimination and destruction of extracellular bacteria. They are capable of migrating through the walls of blood vessels to areas of bacterial infection and tissue damage, where they seek out and kill infectious bacteria. PMN granules contain a variety of defensins and hydrolytic enzymes that help them destroy bacteria through phagocytosis. In addition, when many neutrophils are brought into an infected area, they can be stimulated to release toxic molecules into the surrounding tissue to better clear infectious agents. This is called degranulation.
Another mechanism used by neutrophils is neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs), which are extruded meshes of chromatin that are closely associated with antimicrobial granule proteins and components. Chromatin is DNA with associated proteins (usually histone proteins, around which DNA wraps for organization and packing within a cell). By creating and releasing a mesh or lattice-like structure of chromatin that is coupled with antimicrobial proteins, the neutrophils can mount a highly concentrated and efficient attack against nearby pathogens. Proteins frequently associated with NETs include lactoferrin, gelatinase, cathepsin G, and myeloperoxidase. Each has a different means of promoting antimicrobial activity, helping neutrophils eliminate pathogens. The toxic proteins in NETs may kill some of the body’s own cells along with invading pathogens. However, this collateral damage can be repaired after the danger of the infection has been eliminated.
As neutrophils fight an infection, a visible accumulation of leukocytes, cellular debris, and bacteria at the site of infection can be observed. This buildup is what we call pus (also known as purulent or suppurative discharge or drainage). The presence of pus is a sign that the immune defenses have been activated against an infection; historically, some physicians believed that inducing pus formation could actually promote the healing of wounds. The practice of promoting “laudable pus” (by, for instance, wrapping a wound in greasy wool soaked in wine) dates back to the ancient physician Galen in the 2nd century AD, and was practiced in variant forms until the 17th century (though it was not universally accepted). Today, this method is no longer practiced because we now know that it is not effective. Although a small amount of pus formation can indicate a strong immune response, artificially inducing pus formation does not promote recovery.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology