Pathways for macrophage uptake of cell-free circular RNAs

Mol Cell. 2024 Jun 6;84(11):2104-2118.e6. doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2024.04.022. Epub 2024 May 17.


Circular RNAs (circRNAs) are stable RNAs present in cell-free RNA, which may comprise cellular debris and pathogen genomes. Here, we investigate the phenomenon and mechanism of cellular uptake and intracellular fate of exogenous circRNAs. Human myeloid cells and B cells selectively internalize extracellular circRNAs. Macrophage uptake of circRNA is rapid, energy dependent, and saturable. CircRNA uptake can lead to translation of encoded sequences and antigen presentation. The route of internalization influences immune activation after circRNA uptake, with distinct gene expression programs depending on the route of RNA delivery. Genome-scale CRISPR screens and chemical inhibitor studies nominate macrophage scavenger receptor MSR1, Toll-like receptors, and mTOR signaling as key regulators of receptor-mediated phagocytosis of circRNAs, a dominant pathway to internalize circRNAs in parallel to macropinocytosis. These results suggest that cell-free circRNA serves as an "eat me" signal and danger-associated molecular pattern, indicating orderly pathways of recognition and disposal.

Keywords: MSR1; RNA uptake; circRNA; innate immunity; macropinocytosis; phagocytosis.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigen Presentation
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • B-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Macrophages* / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Phagocytosis*
  • Pinocytosis
  • RNA, Circular* / genetics
  • RNA, Circular* / metabolism
  • Scavenger Receptors, Class A / genetics
  • Scavenger Receptors, Class A / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction*
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / genetics
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / metabolism
  • Toll-Like Receptors / genetics
  • Toll-Like Receptors / metabolism


  • RNA, Circular
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • Toll-Like Receptors
  • MTOR protein, human
  • Scavenger Receptors, Class A