University of Pennsylvania immunologist De’Broski Herbert could not believe what his eyes were seeing when he looked deep inside the lungs of mice infected with influenza. What he found there was a strange-looking cell filled with taste receptors.
He recalled that it looked just like a tuft cell — a cell type most often associated with the lining of the intestines.
Why was a cell with taste receptors in the lungs? And why was it there in response to influenza?
Herbert wasn’t alone in his puzzlement over this mysterious and little-studied group of cells that keep turning up in unexpected places, from the thymus (a small gland in the chest where pathogen-fighting T cells mature) to the pancreas. Scientists are only just beginning to understand them, but it is gradually becoming clear that tuft cells are an important hub for the body’s defenses precisely because they can communicate with the immune system and other sets of tissues, and because their taste receptors allow them to identify threats that are still invisible to other immune cells.
In other words, they are not merely taste receptors.
Know more about these cells over at Quanta Magazine.
(Image Credit: University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine)