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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Molecular architecture of the fruit fly's airway epithelial immune system

Christina Wagner12, Kerstin Isermann2, Heinz Fehrenbach34 and Thomas Roeder12*

Author Affiliations

1 Forschungszentrum Borstel, Dept. Immunology and Cell Biology, Parkallee 1-40, 23845 Borstel, Germany

2 Christian Albrechts University Kiel, Zoophysiology, Ohlshausenstrasse 40, 24098 Kiel, Germany

3 Clinical Research Group "Chronic Airway Diseases", Faculty of Medicine, Philipps-University of Marburg, Baldingerstraße, 35033 Marburg, Germany

4 Forschungszentrum Borstel, Division of Experimental Pneumology, Parkallee 1-40, 23845 Borstel, Germany

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BMC Genomics 2008, 9:446  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-9-446

Published: 29 September 2008



Airway epithelial cells not only constitute a physical barrier, but also the first line of defence against airborne pathogens. At the same time, they are constantly exposed to reactive oxygen species. Therefore, airway epithelia cells have to possess a sophisticated innate immune system and a molecular armamentarium to detoxify reactive oxygen species. It has become apparent that deregulation of epithelial innate immunity is a major reason for the development of chronic inflammatory lung diseases. To elucidate the molecular architecture of the innate immune system of airway epithelial cells, we choose the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model, because it has the simplest type of airways, consisting of epithelial cells only. Elucidating the structure of the innate immune system of this "airway epithelial cell culture" might enable us to understand why deregulatory processes in innate immune signalling cascades lead to long lasting inflammatory events.


All airway epithelial cells of the fruit fly are able to launch an immune response. They contain only one functional signal transduction pathway that converges onto NF-κB factors, namely the IMD-pathway, which is homologous to the TNF-α receptor pathway. Although vital parts of the Toll-pathway are missing, dorsal and dif, the NF-κB factors dedicated to this signalling system, are present. Other pathways involved in immune regulation, such as the JNK- and the JAK/STAT-pathway, are completely functional in these cells. In addition, most peptidoglycan recognition proteins, representing the almost complete collection of pattern recognition receptors, are part of the epithelial cells equipment. Potential effector molecules are different antimicrobial peptides and lysozymes, but also transferrin that can inhibit bacterial growth through iron-depletion. Reactive oxygen species can be inactivated through the almost complete armamentarium of enzymatic antioxidants that has the fly to its disposal.


The innate immune system of the fly's airway epithelium has a very peculiar organization. A great variety of pattern recognition receptors as well as of potential effector molecules are conspicuous, whereas signalling presumably occurs through a single NF-κB activating pathway. This architecture will allow reacting if confronted with different bacterial or fungal elicitors by activation of a multitude of effectors.