Hofbauer Cells Spread Listeria monocytogenes among Placental Cells and Undergo Pro-Inflammatory Reprogramming while Retaining Production of Tolerogenic Factors

mBio. 2021 Aug 31;12(4):e0184921. doi: 10.1128/mBio.01849-21. Epub 2021 Aug 17.


Pregnant women are highly susceptible to infection by the bacterial pathogen Listeria monocytogenes, leading to miscarriage, premature birth, and neonatal infection. L. monocytogenes is thought to breach the placental barrier by infecting trophoblasts at the maternal/fetal interface. However, the fate of L. monocytogenes within chorionic villi and how infection reaches the fetus are unsettled. Hofbauer cells (HBCs) are fetal placental macrophages and the only leukocytes residing in healthy chorionic villi, forming a last immune barrier protecting fetal blood from infection. Little is known about the HBCs' antimicrobial responses to pathogens. Here, we studied L. monocytogenes interaction with human primary HBCs. Remarkably, despite their M2 anti-inflammatory phenotype at basal state, HBCs phagocytose and kill non-pathogenic bacteria like Listeria innocua and display low susceptibility to infection by L. monocytogenes. However, L. monocytogenes can exploit HBCs to spread to surrounding placental cells. Transcriptomic analyses by RNA sequencing revealed that HBCs undergo pro-inflammatory reprogramming upon L. monocytogenes infection, similarly to macrophages stimulated by the potent M1-polarizing agents lipopolysaccharide (LPS)/interferon gamma (IFN-γ). Infected HBCs also express pro-inflammatory chemokines known to promote placental infiltration by maternal leukocytes. However, HBCs maintain the expression of a collection of tolerogenic genes and secretion of tolerogenic cytokines, consistent with their tissue homeostatic role in prevention of fetal rejection. In conclusion, we propose a previously unrecognized model in which HBCs promote the spreading of L. monocytogenes among placental cells and transition to a pro-inflammatory state likely to favor innate immune responses, while maintaining the expression of tolerogenic factors known to prevent maternal anti-fetal adaptive immunity. IMPORTANCE Infection of the placental/fetal unit by the facultative intracellular pathogen Listeria monocytogenes results in severe pregnancy complications. Hofbauer cells (HBCs) are fetal macrophages that play homeostatic anti-inflammatory functions in healthy placentas. HBCs are located in chorionic villi between the two cell barriers that protect fetal blood from infection: trophoblast cells at the maternal interface (in contact with maternal blood), and fetal endothelial cells at the fetal interface (in contact with fetal blood). As the only leukocytes residing in chorionic villi, HBCs form a critical immune barrier protecting the fetus from infection. Here, we show that although HBCs display low susceptibility to L. monocytogenes, the bacterium still replicates intracellularly and can spread to other placental and fetal cells. We propose that HBCs are permissive to L. monocytogenes transplacental propagation and can repolarize toward a pro-inflammatory phenotype upon infection. However, consistent with their placental homeostatic functions, repolarized HBCs maintain the expression of tolerogenic factors known to prevent maternal anti-fetal adaptive immunity, at least at early stages of infection.

Keywords: Hofbauer cells; Listeria monocytogenes; RNA-seq; fetal tolerance; infection; inflammation; macrophage polarization; placenta; transcriptome.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Cells, Cultured
  • Chemokines / immunology
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Listeria monocytogenes / immunology*
  • Listeria monocytogenes / pathogenicity
  • Macrophages / immunology*
  • Macrophages / microbiology*
  • Placenta / cytology
  • Placenta / immunology*
  • Pregnancy
  • THP-1 Cells
  • Trophoblasts / microbiology


  • Chemokines
  • Cytokines