Vertebrate epidermal cells are broad-specificity phagocytes that clear sensory axon debris

J Neurosci. 2015 Jan 14;35(2):559-70. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3613-14.2015.


Cellular debris created by developmental processes or injury must be cleared by phagocytic cells to maintain and repair tissues. Cutaneous injuries damage not only epidermal cells but also the axonal endings of somatosensory (touch-sensing) neurons, which must be repaired to restore the sensory function of the skin. Phagocytosis of neuronal debris is usually performed by macrophages or other blood-derived professional phagocytes, but we have found that epidermal cells phagocytose somatosensory axon debris in zebrafish. Live imaging revealed that epidermal cells rapidly internalize debris into dynamic phosphatidylinositol 3-monophosphate-positive phagosomes that mature into phagolysosomes using a pathway similar to that of professional phagocytes. Epidermal cells phagocytosed not only somatosensory axon debris but also debris created by injury to other peripheral axons that were mislocalized to the skin, neighboring skin cells, and macrophages. Together, these results identify vertebrate epidermal cells as broad-specificity phagocytes that likely contribute to neural repair and wound healing.

Keywords: Wallerian degeneration; axon; phagocytosis; skin; somatosensory; zebrafish.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / pathology*
  • Epidermal Cells
  • Epidermis / physiology*
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / physiology*
  • Phagocytes / metabolism
  • Phagocytes / physiology*
  • Phagocytosis
  • Phagosomes / metabolism
  • Phosphatidylinositol Phosphates / metabolism
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / pathology
  • Wallerian Degeneration*
  • Zebrafish


  • Phosphatidylinositol Phosphates
  • phosphatidylinositol 3-phosphate