Inside the Mucosal Immune System
An intricate network of innate and immune cells and their derived mediators function in unison to protect us from toxic elements and infectious microbial diseases that are encountered in our environment. This vast network operates efficiently by use of a single cell epithelium in, for example, the gastrointestinal (GI) and upper respiratory (UR) tracts, fortified by adjoining cells and lymphoid tissues that protect its integrity. Perturbations certainly occur, sometimes resulting in inflammatory diseases or infections that can be debilitating and life threatening. For example, allergies in the eyes, skin, nose, and the UR or digestive tracts are common. Likewise, genetic background and environmental microbial encounters can lead to inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs). This mucosal immune system (MIS) in both health and disease is currently under intense investigation worldwide by scientists with diverse expertise and interests. Despite this activity, there are numerous questions remaining that will require detailed answers in order to use the MIS to our advantage. In this issue of PLOS Biology, a research article describes a multi-scale in vivo systems approach to determine precisely how the gut epithelium responds to an inflammatory cytokine, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), given by the intravenous route. This article reveals a previously unknown pathway in which several cell types and their secreted mediators work in unison to prevent epithelial cell death in the mouse small intestine. The results of this interesting study illustrate how in vivo systems biology approaches can be used to unravel the complex mechanisms used to protect the host from its environment.