Once pathogen recognition and attachment occurs, the pathogen is engulfed in a vesicle and brought into the internal compartment of the phagocyte in a process called phagocytosis. PRRs can aid in phagocytosis by first binding to the pathogen’s surface, but phagocytes are also capable of engulfing nearby items even if they are not bound to specific receptors. To engulf the pathogen, the phagocyte forms a pseudopod that wraps around the pathogen and then pinches it off into a membrane vesicle called a phagosome. Acidification of the phagosome (pH decreases to the range of 4–5) provides an important early antibacterial mechanism. The phagosome containing the pathogen fuses with one or more lysosomes, forming a phagolysosome. Formation of the phagolysosome enhances the acidification, which is essential for activation of pH-dependent digestive lysosomal enzymes and production of hydrogen peroxide and toxic reactive oxygen species. Lysosomal enzymes such as lysozyme, phospholipase, and proteases digest the pathogen. Other enzymes are involved in a respiratory burst. During the respiratory burst, phagocytes will increase their uptake and consumption of oxygen, but not for energy production. The increased oxygen consumption is focused on the production of superoxide anion, hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radicals, and other reactive oxygen species that are antibacterial.
In addition to the reactive oxygen species produced by the respiratory burst, reactive nitrogen compounds with cytotoxic (cell-killing) potential can also form. For example, nitric oxide can react with superoxide to form peroxynitrite, a highly reactive nitrogen compound with degrading capabilities similar to those of the reactive oxygen species. Some phagocytes even contain an internal storehouse of microbicidal defensin proteins (e.g., neutrophil granules). These destructive forces can be released into the area around the cell to degrade microbes externally. Neutrophils, especially, can be quite efficient at this secondary antimicrobial mechanism.
Once degradation is complete, leftover waste products are excreted from the cell in an exocytic vesicle. However, it is important to note that not all remains of the pathogen are excreted as waste. Macrophages and dendritic cells are also antigen-presenting cells involved in the specific adaptive immune response. These cells further process the remains of the degraded pathogen and present key antigens (specific pathogen proteins) on their cellular surface. This is an important step for stimulation of some adaptive immune responses.
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