Blood monocytes and spleen macrophages differentiate into microglia-like cells on monolayers of astrocytes: morphology

Glia. 1994 Dec;12(4):245-58. doi: 10.1002/glia.440120402.


Several morphological and functional properties of microglial cells, the resident immunoeffector cells of the central nervous system (CNS), differ from those of monocytes/macrophages in other tissues. Microglia are assumed to derive from myelonocytic lineage, possibly as a distinct subpopulation that diverges from a common cell line early in ontogeny, invades the CNS, proliferates, and differentiates into ameboid and then ramified microglia. We tested the hypothesis that some morphological and functional properties of microglia are induced in myelomonocytic cells by nervous tissue, specifically astrocytes. In the present in vitro studies we compared the differentiation of microglia, blood monocytes, and spleen macrophages on acellular substrates and on monolayers of astrocytes and fibroblasts. On acellular substrates, microglial cells at first acquire an ameboid morphology; later they show a few short, unbranched processes. On monolayers of pure astrocytes, microglial cells at first also differentiate into ameboid cells, but after 5 to 7 days they start to develop processes with large lamellopodial tips. These lengthen and branch continuously during the next 2 weeks in vitro, demarcating a round to oval territory around the small ellipsoid cell body. By contrast, on monolayers of fibroblasts the microglial cells develop an ameboid morphology, but do not grow the typical long branched processes of the ramified form. Blood monocytes and spleen macrophages behave indistinguishably from microglia both on acellular and cellular substrates, i.e., on astroglia they develop the ramified form, while on fibroblasts they retain the ameboid shape. When microglia, macrophages, or monocytes are cultured on coverslips on top of astrocytic monolayers, i.e., physically separated from the astroglia, but exposed to the medium conditioned by astrocytes, a significant proportion of them also develop the ramified shape. These findings indicate that the ramified shape of microglia is induced by astrocytes. Since this morphology can also be induced in blood monocytes and macrophages, we take this to be further evidence for the proposition that microglial cells are derived from the myelomonocytic lineage, and, moreover, that properties of resident macrophages are largely determined by tissue components of their host organ.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens / immunology
  • Astrocytes / physiology*
  • Blood Cells / cytology*
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cytological Techniques*
  • Fibroblasts / physiology
  • Humans
  • Macrophages / cytology*
  • Macrophages / immunology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Microglia / cytology*
  • Monocytes / cytology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Lew
  • Rats, Inbred Strains
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Spleen / cytology*


  • Antigens