Among many challenges facing the battle against infectious disease, one quandary stands out. On the one hand, it is often unclear how well animal models and cell lines mimic human immune behavior. On the other hand, many core methods of cell and molecular biology cannot be applied to human subjects. For example, the profound susceptibility of neutropenic patients to infection marks neutrophils (the most abundant white blood cells in humans) as vital immune defenders. Yet because these cells cannot be cultured or genetically manipulated, there are gaps in our understanding of the behavior of human neutrophils. Here, we discuss an alternative, interdisciplinary strategy to dissect fundamental mechanisms of immune-cell interactions with bacteria and fungi. We show how biophysical analyses of single-live-cell/single-target encounters are revealing universal principles of immune-cell phagocytosis, while also dispelling misconceptions about the minimum required mechanistic determinants of this process.
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