The Cytokines


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Cytokines are molecular messengers. In autocrine signaling the same cell secretes and receives cytokine signals. The diagram shows a single cell releasing molecules and having the molecules bind to receptors on its surface. In paracrine signaling cytokine signals are secreted to a nearby cell. The diagram shows a cell labeled secreting cell secreting cytokines. A nearby cell has receptors for the molecules. In endocrine signaling cytokine signals are secreted to the circulatory system and travel to distant cells. The diagram shows the secreting cell secreting cytokines; the cytokines then travel through a blood vessel and bind to receptors on a distant cell.
Autocrine, paracrine, and endocrine actions describe which cells are targeted by cytokines and how far the cytokines must travel to bind to their intended target cells’ receptors.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

The Cytokines (OpenStax Microbiology)

Cytokines are soluble proteins that act as communication signals between cells. In a nonspecific innate immune response, various cytokines may be released to stimulate production of chemical mediators or other cell functions, such as cell proliferation, cell differentiation, inhibition of cell division, apoptosis, and chemotaxis.

When a cytokine binds to its target receptor, the effect can vary widely depending on the type of cytokine and the type of cell or receptor to which it has bound. The function of a particular cytokine can be described as autocrine, paracrine, or endocrine. In autocrine function, the same cell that releases the cytokine is the recipient of the signal; in other words, autocrine function is a form of self-stimulation by a cell. In contrast, paracrine function involves the release of cytokines from one cell to other nearby cells, stimulating some response from the recipient cells. Last, endocrine function occurs when cells release cytokines into the bloodstream to be carried to target cells much farther away.

Three important classes of cytokines are the interleukins, chemokines, and interferons. The interleukins were originally thought to be produced only by leukocytes (white blood cells) and to only stimulate leukocytes, thus the reasons for their name. Although interleukins are involved in modulating almost every function of the immune system, their role in the body is not restricted to immunity. Interleukins are also produced by and stimulate a variety of cells unrelated to immune defenses.

The chemokines are chemotactic factors that recruit leukocytes to sites of infection, tissue damage, and inflammation. In contrast to more general chemotactic factors, like complement factor C5a, chemokines are very specific in the subsets of leukocytes they recruit.

Interferons are a diverse group of immune signaling molecules and are especially important in our defense against viruses. Type I interferons (interferon-α and interferon-β) are produced and released by cells infected with virus. These interferons stimulate nearby cells to stop production of mRNA, destroy RNA already produced, and reduce protein synthesis. These cellular changes inhibit viral replication and production of mature virus, slowing the spread of the virus. Type I interferons also stimulate various immune cells involved in viral clearance to more aggressively attack virus-infected cells. Type II interferon (interferon-γ) is an important activator of immune cells.

A cell with viruses inside it releases signals labeled interferons. The interferons travel to 3 different cells. The interferon signals neighboring uninfected cells to destroy RNA and reduce protein synthesis. The interferon signals neighboring infected cells to undergo apoptosis. The interferon also activates immune cells.
Interferons are cytokines released by a cell infected with a virus. Interferon-α and interferon-β signal uninfected neighboring cells to inhibit mRNA synthesis, destroy RNA, and reduce protein synthesis (top arrow). Interferon-α and interferon-β also promote apoptosis in cells infected with the virus (middle arrow). Interferon-γ alerts neighboring immune cells to an attack (bottom arrow). Although interferons do not cure the cell releasing them or other infected cells, which will soon die, their release may prevent additional cells from becoming infected, thus stemming the infection.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

Related Topic: Cytokine Release Effect

Related Research: Research Article: Dynamics of a Cytokine Storm


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


Related External Links:

The COVID-19 Cytokine Storm; What We Know So Far