Decidual natural killer cells accumulate at the fetal-maternal interface and play a key role in a successful pregnancy. However, their origin is still unknown. Do they derive from peripheral natural killer cells recruited in decidua or do they represent a distinct population that originates in situ? Here, we identified natural killer precursors in decidua and uterus of pregnant mice. These precursors underwent rapid in situ differentiation and large proportions of proliferating immature natural killer cells were present in decidua and uterus as early as gestation day 4.5. Here, we investigated the origin of decidua- and uterus-natural killer cells by performing transfer experiments of peripheral mature natural killer cells or precursors from EGFP+ mice. Results showed that mature natural killer cells did not migrate into decidua and uterus, while precursors were recruited in these organs and differentiated towards natural killer cells. Moreover, decidua- and uterus-natural killer cells displayed unique phenotypic and functional features. They expressed high levels of the activating Ly49D receptor in spite of their immature phenotype. In addition, decidua- and uterus-natural killer cells were poorly cytolytic and produced low amounts of IFN-γ, while they released factors (GM-CSF, VEGF, IP-10) involved in neo-angiogenesis and tissue remodeling. Our data reveal in situ generation of decidual natural killer cells and provide an important correlation between mouse and human decidual natural killer cells, allowing further studies to be carried out on their role in pregnancy-related diseases.
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