Human gut-associated natural killer cells in health and disease

Alessandro Poggi, Roberto Benelli, Roberta Venè, Delfina Costa, Nicoletta Ferrari, Francesca Tosetti, Maria Raffaella Zocchi

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


It is well established that natural killer (NK) cells are involved in both innate and adaptive immunity. Indeed, they can recognize molecules induced at the cell surface by stress signals and virus infections. The functions of NK cells in the gut are much more complex. Gut NK cells are not precisely organized in lymphoid aggregates but rather scattered in the epithelium or in the stroma, where they come in contact with a multitude of antigens derived from commensal or pathogenic microorganisms in addition to components of microbiota. Furthermore, NK cells in the bowel interact with several cell types, including epithelial cells, fibroblasts, macrophages, dendritic cells, and T lymphocytes, and contribute to the maintenance of immune homeostasis and development of efficient immune responses. NK cells have a key role in the response to intestinal bacterial infections, primarily through production of IFNγ, which can stimulate recruitment of additional NK cells from peripheral blood leading to amplification of the anti-bacterial immune response. Additionally, NK cells can have a role in the pathogenesis of gut autoimmune inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), such as Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis. These diseases are considered relevant to the generation of gastrointestinal malignancies. Indeed, the role of gut-associated NK cells in the immune response to bowel cancers is known. Thus, in the gut immune system, NK cells play a dual role, participating in both physiological and pathogenic processes. In this review, we will analyze the known functions of NK cells in the gut mucosa both in health and disease, focusing on the cross-talk among bowel microenvironment, epithelial barrier integrity, microbiota, and NK cells.

Original languageEnglish
Article number961
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
Issue numberMAY
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2019


  • Colorectal carcinoma
  • Gut-associated lymphoid tissues
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Innate lymphoid cells
  • Natural killer cells

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology


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