DNA binding to TLR9 expressed by red blood cells promotes innate immune activation and anemia

Sci Transl Med. 2021 Oct 20;13(616):eabj1008. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.abj1008. Epub 2021 Oct 20.


Red blood cells (RBCs) are essential for aerobic respiration through delivery of oxygen to distant tissues. However, RBCs are currently considered immunologically inert, and few, if any, secondary functions of RBCs have been identified. Here, we showed that RBCs serve as critical immune sensors through surface expression of the nucleic acid–sensing Toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9). Mammalian RBCs expressed TLR9 on their surface and bound CpG-containing DNA derived from bacteria, plasmodia, and mitochondria. RBC-bound mitochondrial DNA was increased during human and murine sepsis and pneumonia. In vivo, CpG-carrying RBCs drove accelerated erythrophagocytosis and innate immune activation characterized by increased interferon signaling. Erythroid-specific deletion of TLR9 abrogated erythrophagocytosis and decreased local and systemic cytokine production during CpG-induced inflammation and polymicrobial sepsis. Thus, detection and capture of nucleic acid by TLR9-expressing RBCs regulated red cell clearance and inflammatory cytokine production, demonstrating that RBCs function as immune sentinels during pathologic states. Consistent with these findings, RBC-bound mitochondrial DNA was elevated in individuals with viral pneumonia and sepsis secondary to coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and associated with anemia and severity of disease. These findings uncover a previously unappreciated role of RBCs as critical players in inflammation distinct from their function in gas transport.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Anemia*
  • Animals
  • DNA
  • Erythrocytes
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Mice
  • Toll-Like Receptor 9*


  • TLR9 protein, human
  • Toll-Like Receptor 9
  • DNA