Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Biology and BioMed Central.

Journal App

google play app store
Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Centriole polarisation to the immunological synapse directs secretion from cytolytic cells of both the innate and adaptive immune systems

Jane C Stinchcombe1, Mariolina Salio2, Vincenzo Cerundolo2, Daniela Pende3, Maurizo Arico4 and Gillian M Griffiths1*

Author Affiliations

1 Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, University of Cambridge, Hills Road, Cambridge CB2 0XY, UK

2 Human Immunology Unit, Weatherall Institute for Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, OX3 9DS, UK

3 National Institute for Cancer Research, Largo Rosanna Benzi 10, I-16132 Genoa, Italy

4 Department of Oncology and Pediatrics, Azienda Hospital, Meyer University, I-50139 Florence, Italy

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Biology 2011, 9:45  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-9-45

Published: 28 June 2011



Cytolytic cells of the immune system destroy pathogen-infected cells by polarised exocytosis of secretory lysosomes containing the pore-forming protein perforin. Precise delivery of this lethal hit is essential to ensuring that only the target cell is destroyed. In cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs), this is accomplished by an unusual movement of the centrosome to contact the plasma membrane at the centre of the immunological synapse formed between killer and target cells. Secretory lysosomes are directed towards the centrosome along microtubules and delivered precisely to the point of target cell recognition within the immunological synapse, identified by the centrosome. We asked whether this mechanism of directing secretory lysosome release is unique to CTL or whether natural killer (NK) and invariant NKT (iNKT) cytolytic cells of the innate immune system use a similar mechanism to focus perforin-bearing lysosome release.


NK cells were conjugated with B-cell targets lacking major histocompatibility complex class I 721.221 cells, and iNKT cells were conjugated with glycolipid-pulsed CD1-bearing targets, then prepared for thin-section electron microscopy. High-resolution electron micrographs of the immunological synapse formed between NK and iNKT cytolytic cells with their targets revealed that in both NK and iNKT cells, the centrioles could be found associated (or 'docked') with the plasma membrane within the immunological synapse. Secretory clefts were visible within the synapses formed by both NK and iNKT cells, and secretory lysosomes were polarised along microtubules leading towards the docked centrosome. The Golgi apparatus and recycling endosomes were also polarised towards the centrosome at the plasma membrane within the synapse.


These results reveal that, like CTLs of the adaptive immune system, the centrosomes of NK and iNKT cells (cytolytic cells of the innate immune system) direct secretory lysosomes to the immunological synapse. Morphologically, the overall structure of the immunological synapses formed by NK and iNKT cells are very similar to those formed by CTLs, with both exocytic and endocytic organelles polarised towards the centrosome at the plasma membrane, which forms a focal point for exocytosis and endocytosis within the immunological synapse. We conclude that centrosomal polarisation provides a rapid, responsive and precise mechanism for secretory lysosome delivery to the immunological synapse in CTLs, NK cells and iNKT cells.