NKT cell self-reactivity: evolutionary master key of immune homeostasis?

J Mol Cell Biol. 2012 Apr;4(2):70-8. doi: 10.1093/jmcb/mjr035. Epub 2011 Dec 13.


Complex immune responses have evolved to protect multicellular organisms against the invasion of pathogens. This has exerted strong developmental pressure for specialized functions that can also limit damage to self-tissue. Two arms of immunity, the innate and adaptive immune systems, have evolved for quick, non-specific immune responses to pathogens and more efficient, long-lasting ones upon specific recognition of recurrent pathogens. Specialized cells have arisen as the sentinels of these functions, including macrophages, natural killer (NK), and T and B-lymphocytes. Interestingly, a population of immune cells that can exert both of these complex functions, NKT cells, not only share common functions but also exhibit shared cell surface markers of cells of both arms of the immune system. These features, in combination with sophisticated maintenance of immune homeostasis, will be discussed. The recent finding of self-peptide reactivity of NKT cells in the context of CD1d, with capacity to regulate multiple autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, motivates the current proposal that self-reactive NKT cells might be the ancestral link between present NK and T cells. Their parallel selection through evolution by higher vertebrates could be related to their central function as master regulators of immune homeostasis that in part is shared with regulatory T cells. Hypothetical views on how self-reactive NKT cells secure such a central role will also be proposed.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cell Lineage
  • Homeostasis*
  • Humans
  • Immune System / cytology*
  • Immune System / immunology
  • Natural Killer T-Cells / cytology*
  • Natural Killer T-Cells / immunology