Goblet cells (GCs) are the predominant secretory epithelial cells lining the luminal surface of the mammalian gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Best known for their apical release of mucin 2 (Muc2), which is critical for the formation of the intestinal mucus barrier, GCs have often been overlooked for their active contributions to intestinal protection and host defense. In part, this oversight reflects the limited tools available to study their function but also because GCs have long been viewed as relatively passive players in promoting intestinal homeostasis and host defense. In light of recent studies, this perspective has shifted, as current evidence suggests that Muc2 as well as other GC mediators are actively released into the lumen to defend the host when the GI tract is challenged by noxious stimuli. The ability of GCs to sense and respond to danger signals, such as bacterial pathogens, has recently been linked to inflammasome signaling, potentially intrinsic to the GCs themselves. Moreover, further work suggests that GCs release Muc2, as well as other mediators, to modulate the composition of the gut microbiome, leading to both the expansion as well as the depletion of specific gut microbes. This review will focus on the mechanisms by which GCs actively defend the host from noxious stimuli, as well as describe advanced technologies and new approaches by which their responses can be addressed. Taken together, we will highlight current insights into this understudied, yet critical, aspect of intestinal mucosal protection and its role in promoting gut defense and homeostasis.
Keywords: goblet cell; gut infections; inflammatory bowel disease; microbes; mucus.