Mucosal Surfaces and Immune Tolerance

Related Posts

The intestine is lined with epithelial cells with hair-like cilia extending into the intestinal lumen. M cells are sandwiched between these epithelial cells, in bump-like projections in the intestinal lining. The M cells are shaped like an upside-down U, with the U forming a pocket on the interior surface. Antigens are taken up from the intestinal lumen by the M cells, and excreted into this U-shaped pocket. Dendritic cells in the pocket ingest the antigen, then migrate to an area below of the intestinal lining called a Peyers patch. The dendritic cells, T cells and B cells aggregate to form clumps of cells called organized lymphoid follicles. There, some T cells interact with antigen associated with M H C I I on the surface of the dendritic cells. Some B cells are activated by free antigen. Some antigen-presenting dendritic cells enter the lymphatic system, where more B and T cells are activated in the lymph nodes. The B cells and T cells return to bigger bumps in the intestinal epithelium called MALT effector sites. Antibodies are secreted into the intestinal lumen.
The topology and function of intestinal MALT is shown. Pathogens are taken up by M cells in the intestinal epithelium and excreted into a pocket formed by the inner surface of the cell. The pocket contains antigen-presenting cells such as dendritic cells, which engulf the antigens, then present them with MHC II molecules on the cell surface. The dendritic cells migrate to an underlying tissue called a Peyer’s patch. Antigen-presenting cells, T cells, and B cells aggregate within the Peyer’s patch, forming organized lymphoid follicles. There, some T cells and B cells are activated. Other antigen-loaded dendritic cells migrate through the lymphatic system where they activate B cells, T cells, and plasma cells in the lymph nodes. The activated cells then return to MALT tissue effector sites. IgA and other antibodies are secreted into the intestinal lumen. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The innate and adaptive immune responses discussed thus far comprise the systemic immune system (affecting the whole body), which is distinct from the mucosal immune system. Mucosal immunity is formed by mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue, which functions independently of the systemic immune system, and which has its own innate and adaptive components. Mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) is a collection of lymphatic tissue that combines with epithelial tissue lining the mucosa throughout the body. This tissue functions as the immune barrier and response in areas of the body with direct contact to the external environment. The systemic and mucosal immune systems use many of the same cell types. Foreign particles that make their way to MALT are taken up by absorptive epithelial cells called M cells and delivered to APCs located directly below the mucosal tissue. M cells function in the transport described, and are located in the Peyer’s patch, a lymphoid nodule. APCs of the mucosal immune system are primarily dendritic cells, with B cells and macrophages having minor roles. Processed antigens displayed on APCs are detected by T cells in the MALT and at various mucosal induction sites, such as the tonsils, adenoids, appendix, or the mesenteric lymph nodes of the intestine. Activated T cells then migrate through the lymphatic system and into the circulatory system to mucosal sites of infection.

MALT is a crucial component of a functional immune system because mucosal surfaces, such as the nasal passages, are the first tissues onto which inhaled or ingested pathogens are deposited. The mucosal tissue includes the mouth, pharynx, and esophagus, and the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and urogenital tracts.

The immune system has to be regulated to prevent wasteful, unnecessary responses to harmless substances, and more importantly so that it does not attack “self.” The acquired ability to prevent an unnecessary or harmful immune response to a detected foreign substance known not to cause disease is described as immune tolerance. Immune tolerance is crucial for maintaining mucosal homeostasis given the tremendous number of foreign substances (such as food proteins) that APCs of the oral cavity, pharynx, and gastrointestinal mucosa encounter. Immune tolerance is brought about by specialized APCs in the liver, lymph nodes, small intestine, and lung that present harmless antigens to an exceptionally diverse population of regulatory T (Treg) cells, specialized lymphocytes that suppress local inflammation and inhibit the secretion of stimulatory immune factors. The combined result of Treg cells is to prevent immunologic activation and inflammation in undesired tissue compartments and to allow the immune system to focus on pathogens instead. In addition to promoting immune tolerance of harmless antigens, other subsets of Treg cells are involved in the prevention of the autoimmune response, which is an inappropriate immune response to host cells or self-antigens. Another Treg class suppresses immune responses to harmful pathogens after the infection has cleared to minimize host cell damage induced by inflammation and cell lysis.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.