Secret messengers: Extracellular RNA communication in the immune system

Immunol Rev. 2021 Nov;304(1):62-76. doi: 10.1111/imr.13027. Epub 2021 Sep 20.


One of the hallmarks of the immune system is a dynamic landscape of cellular communication through the secretion of soluble factors, production of cell-bound ligands, and expression of surface receptors. This communication affects all aspects of immune cell behavior, integrates the responses of immune cells in tissues, and is fundamental to orchestrating effective immunity. Recent pioneering work has shown that the transfer of ribonucleic acids (RNAs) constitutes a novel mode of cellular communication. This communication involves diverse RNA species, with short noncoding RNAs especially enriched in the extracellular space. These RNAs are highly stable and selectively packaged for secretion. Transferred RNAs have functions in target cells that both mirror their cell-intrinsic roles and adopt novel mechanisms of action. These extracellular RNAs both impact the behavior of individual immune cells and participate in local and systemic immune responses. The impacts of RNA communication on immune cells and disease states have important implications for the development of novel clinical biomarkers and innovative therapeutic designs in immune-related disease. In this review, we will discuss the foundation of knowledge that is establishing RNA communication as an active and functional process in the immune system.

Keywords: Argonaute; B cell; EV; T cell; YRNA; dendritic cell; exRNA; exomere; exosome; extracellular RNA; extracellular vesicles; immune; inflammation; macrophage; miRNA; microvesicle; snoRNA; tRNA; vtRNA.

Publication types

  • Review