Natural killer cell cytotoxicity: how do they pull the trigger?

Immunology. 2009 Sep;128(1):7-15. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2567.2009.03123.x.


Natural killer (NK) cells target and kill aberrant cells, such as virally infected and tumorigenic cells. Killing is mediated by cytotoxic molecules which are stored within secretory lysosomes, a specialized exocytic organelle found in NK cells. Target cell recognition induces the formation of a lytic immunological synapse between the NK cell and its target. The polarized exocytosis of secretory lysosomes is then activated and these organelles release their cytotoxic contents at the lytic synapse, specifically killing the target cell. The essential role that secretory lysosome exocytosis plays in the cytotoxic function of NK cells is highlighted by immune disorders that are caused by the mutation of critical components of the exocytic machinery. This review will discuss recent studies on the molecular basis for NK cell secretory lysosome exocytosis and the immunological consequences of defects in the exocytic machinery.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Actins / metabolism
  • Cytoskeleton / metabolism
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic / immunology*
  • Exocytosis / immunology
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Immunological Synapses / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Lysosomes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic / immunology


  • Actins