Natural killer (NK) cells are lymphoid effectors that are involved in the innate immune surveillance against infected and/or tumor cells. Their function is under the fine-tuning control of cell surface receptors that display either inhibitory or activating function and in healthy condition, mediate self-tolerance. It is known that inhibitory receptors are characterized by clonal and stochastic distribution and are extremely sensible to any modification, downregulation or loss of MHC class I surface expression that are induced in autologous cells upon viral infection or cancer transformation. This alteration of the MHC class I expression weakens the strength of the inhibitory receptor-induced interaction, thus resulting in a prompt triggering of NK cell function, which ends up in the inhibition of tumor progression and proliferation of pathogen-infected cells. Thus, the inhibitory function of NK cells is only one face of the coin, since NK-cell activation is controlled by different arrays of activating receptors that finally are involved in the induction of cytolysis and/or cytokine release. Interestingly, the inhibitory NK-cell receptors that are involved in dampening NK cell-mediated responses evolved during speciation in different, often structurally unrelated surface-expressed molecules, all using a conserved signaling pathway. In detail, during evolution, the inhibitory receptors that assure the recognition of MHC class I molecules, originate in, at least, three different ways. This ended up in multigene families showing marked structural divergences that coevolved in a convergent way with the availability of appropriate MHC ligand molecules.
- Gene loci evolution
- Killer inhibitory receptor
- Natural cytotoxicity receptors
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Immunology and Microbiology (miscellaneous)