AskDefine | Define macrophage

Dictionary Definition

macrophage n : a large phagocyte; some are fixed and other circulate in the blood stream

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. In the context of "immunology|cytology": A white blood cell that phagocytizes necrotic cell debris and foreign material, including viruses, bacteria, and tattoo ink. It presents foreign antigens on MHC II to lymphocytes. Part of the innate immune system.


type of white blood cell
  • German: Makrophage, Fresszelle
  • Italian: macrofago
  • Japanese: マクロファージ
  • Swedish: makrofag

See also

Extensive Definition

Macrophages (Greek: "big eaters", from makros "large" + phagein "eat") (mø) are cells within the tissues that originate from specific white blood cells called monocytes. Monocytes and macrophages are phagocytes, acting in both non-specific defense (or innate immunity) as well as specific defense (or cell-mediated immunity) of vertebrate animals. Their role is to phagocytose (engulf and then digest) cellular debris and pathogens either as stationary or mobile cells, and to stimulate lymphocytes and other immune cells to respond to the pathogen.

Life cycle

When a monocyte enters damaged tissue through the endothelium of a blood vessel (a process known as the leukocyte adhesion cascade), it undergoes a series of changes to become a macrophage. Monocytes are attracted to a damaged site by chemical substances through chemotaxis, triggered by a range of stimuli including damaged cells, pathogens, histamine released by mast cells and basophils, and cytokines released by macrophages already at the site. At some sites such as the testis, macrophages have been shown to populate the organ through proliferation.
Unlike short-lived neutrophils, the life span of a macrophage ranges from months to years.



One important role of the macrophage is the removal of necrotic debris and dust in the lungs. Removing dead cell material is important in chronic inflammation as the early stages of inflammation are dominated by neutrophil granulocytes, which are ingested by macrophages if they come of age (see CD-31 for a description of this process.)
The removal of dust and necrotic tissue is to a greater extent handled by fixed macrophages, which will stay at strategic locations such as the lungs, liver, neural tissue, bone, spleen and connective tissue, ingesting foreign materials such as dust and pathogens, calling upon wandering macrophages if needed.
When a macrophage ingests a pathogen, the pathogen becomes trapped in a food vacuole, which then fuses with a lysosome. Within the lysosome, enzymes and toxic peroxides digest the invader. However, some bacteria, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, have become resistant to these methods of digestion. Macrophages can digest more than 100 bacteria before they finally die due to their own digestive compounds.

Role in specific immunity

Macrophages are versatile cells that play many roles. As scavengers, they rid the body of worn-out cells and other debris. They are foremost among the cells that "present" antigen; a crucial role in initiating an immune response. As secretory cells, monocytes and macrophages are vital to the regulation of immune responses and the development of inflammation; they churn out an amazing array of powerful chemical substances (monokines) including enzymes, complement proteins, and regulatory factors such as interleukin-1. At the same time, they carry receptors for lymphokines that allow them to be "activated" into single-minded pursuit of microbes and tumour cells.
After digesting a pathogen, a macrophage will present the antigen (a molecule, most often a protein found on the surface of the pathogen, used by the immune system for identification) of the pathogen to a corresponding helper T cell. The presentation is done by integrating it into the cell membrane and displaying it attached to a MHC class II molecule, indicating to other white blood cells that the macrophage is not a pathogen, despite having antigens on its surface.
Eventually the antigen presentation results in the production of antibodies that attach to the antigens of pathogens, making them easier for macrophages to adhere to with their cell membrane and phagocytose. In some cases, pathogens are very resistant to adhesion by the macrophages. Coating an antigen with antibodies could be compared to coating something with Velcro to make it stick to fuzzy surfaces.
The antigen presentation on the surface of infected macrophages (in the context of MHC class II) in a lymph node stimulates TH1 (type 1 helper T cells) to proliferate (mainly due to IL-12 secretion from the macrophage). When a B-cell in the lymph node recognizes the same unprocessed surface antigen on the bacterium with its surface bound antibody, the antigen is endocytosed and processed. The processed antigen is then presented in MHCII on the surface of the B-cell. TH1 receptor that has proliferated recognizes the antigen-MHCII complex (with co-stimulatory factors- CD40 and CD40L) and causes the B-cell to produce antibodies that help opsonisation of the antigen so that the bacteria can be better cleared by phagocytes.
Macrophages provide yet another line of defense against tumor cells and body cells infected with fungus or parasites. Once a T cell has recognized its particular antigen on the surface of an aberrant cell, the T cell becomes an activated effector cell, releasing chemical mediators known as lymphokines that stimulate macrophages into a more aggressive form. These activated or angry macrophages, can then engulf and digest affected cells much more readily. The angry macrophage does not generate a response specific for an antigen, but attacks the cells present in the local area in which it was activated.


Related cells


See also

External links

macrophage in Arabic: بلعميات
macrophage in Catalan: Macròfag
macrophage in Czech: Makrofág
macrophage in German: Makrophage
macrophage in Spanish: Macrófago
macrophage in Basque: Makrofago
macrophage in Persian: درشت‌خوار
macrophage in French: Macrophage
macrophage in Indonesian: Makrofag
macrophage in Italian: Macrofago
macrophage in Hebrew: מקרופאג'
macrophage in Lithuanian: Makrofagas
macrophage in Dutch: Macrofaag
macrophage in Japanese: マクロファージ
macrophage in Polish: Makrofag
macrophage in Portuguese: Macrófago
macrophage in Russian: Макрофаги
macrophage in Slovak: Makrofág
macrophage in Serbian: Макрофаг
macrophage in Finnish: Makrofagi
macrophage in Swedish: Makrofag
macrophage in Vietnamese: Đại thực bào
macrophage in Turkish: Makrofaj
macrophage in Ukrainian: Макрофаги
macrophage in Chinese: 巨噬细胞
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