Intestinal macrophages are essential for local homeostasis and in keeping a balance between commensal microbiota and the host. However, they also play essential roles in inflammation and protective immunity, when they change from peaceful regulators to powerful aggressors. As a result, activated macrophages are important targets for treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease. Until recently, the complexity and heterogeneity of intestinal macrophages have been underestimated and here we review current evidence that there are distinct populations of resident and inflammatory macrophages in the intestine. We describe the mechanisms that ensure macrophages remain partially inert in the healthy gut and cannot promote inflammation despite constant exposure to bacteria and other stimuli. This may be because the local environment 'conditions' macrophage precursors to become unresponsive after they arrive in the gut. Nevertheless, this permits some active, physiological functions to persist. A new population of pro-inflammatory macrophages appears in inflammation and we review the evidence that this involves recruitment of a distinct population of fully responsive monocytes, rather than alterations in the existing cells. A constant balance between these resident and inflammatory macrophages is critical for maintaining the status quo in healthy gut and ensuring protective immunity when required.
Copyright © 2011 S. Karger AG, Basel.