What Defines NK Cell Functional Fate: Phenotype or Metabolism?

Front Immunol. 2019 Jun 19;10:1414. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2019.01414. eCollection 2019.


NK cells are capable of an array of functions that range widely from their classic anti-tumor and anti-viral cytotoxic effector functions, to their critical regulatory roles in controlling inflammatory immune responses and promoting tissue growth. However, the mechanisms that polarize NK cells to these distinct and opposing functions are incompletely understood. NK cell functional subsets are primarily identified and studied based on phenotype, which has served as an accessible means for profiling NK cells and does offer information on NK cell activation state. However, inconsistencies have emerged in using classic phenotypes to inform function, which raise the questions: Can phenotype in fact define NK cell functional fate? What factors do profile and drive NK cell fate? In other immune cells, cell metabolism has been shown to critically determine subset polarization. There is a growing body of evidence that cell metabolism is integral to NK cell effector functions. Glucose-driven glycolysis and oxidative metabolism have been shown to drive classic NK cell anti-tumor and anti-viral effector functions. Recent studies have uncovered a critical role for metabolism in NK cell development, education, and memory generation. In this review, we will draw on the evidence to date to investigate the relationship between NK cell phenotype, metabolism, and functional fate. We explore a paradigm in which the differential activity of metabolic pathways within NK cells produce distinct metabolic fingerprints that comprehensively distinguish and drive the range of NK cell functional abilities. We will discuss future areas of study that are needed to develop and test this paradigm and suggest strategies to efficiently profile NK cells based on metabolism. Given the emerging role of metabolism in driving NK cell fates, profiling and modulating NK cell metabolism holds profound therapeutic potential to tune inflammatory and regulatory NK cell responses to treat disease.

Keywords: CD56; NK cell; NK cell subsets; cell metabolism; glycolysis; innate immunity; mitochondria; phenotype.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Immunologic Memory
  • Immunomodulation
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / metabolism*
  • Phenotype*


  • Biomarkers