On the Way to Become a Natural Killer Cell

Clara Di Vito, Joanna Mikulak, Domenico Mavilio

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Natural Killer (NK) cells are innate lymphocytes playing pivotal roles in host defense and immune-surveillance. The homeostatic modulation of germ-line encoded/non-rearranged activating and inhibitory NK cell receptors (NKRs) determines the capability of these innate lymphocytes to either spare "self" cells or to kill viral-infected, tumor-transformed and heterologous cell targets. However, despite being discovered more than 40 years ago, several aspects of NK cell biology remain unknown or are still being debated. In particular, our knowledge of human NK cell ontogenesis and differentiation is still in its infancy as the majority of our experimental evidence on this topic mainly comes from findings obtained in vitro or with animal models in vivo. Although both the generation and the maintenance of human NK cells are sustained by hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), the precise site(s) of NK cell development are still poorly defined. Indeed, HSCs and hematopoietic precursors are localized in different anatomical compartments that also change their ontogenic commitments before and after birth as well as in aging. Currently, the main site of NK cell generation and maturation in adulthood is considered the bone marrow, where their interactions with stromal cells, cytokines, growth factors, and other soluble molecules support and drive maturation. Different sequential stages of NK cell development have been identified on the basis of the differential expression of specific markers and NKRs as well as on the acquisition of specific effector-functions. All these phenotypic and functional features are key in inducing and regulating homing, activation and tissue-residency of NK cells in different human anatomic sites, where different homeostatic mechanisms ensure a perfect balance between immune tolerance and immune-surveillance. The present review summarizes our current knowledge on human NK cell ontogenesis and on the related pathways orchestrating a proper maturation, functions, and distributions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1812
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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