Published in PLoS ONE, Vol. 9 No. 1:e86656 (2014) at doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086656


Intestinal epithelial cells (IECs) overlying the villi play a prominent role in absorption of digested nutrients and establish a barrier that separates the internal milieu from potentially harmful microbial antigens. Several mechanisms by which antigens of dietary and microbial origin enter the body have been identified; however whether IECs play a role in antigen uptake is not known. Using in vivo imaging of the mouse small intestine, we investigated whether epithelial cells (enterocytes) play an active role in the uptake (sampling) of lumen antigens. We found that small molecular weight antigens such as chicken ovalbumin, dextran, and bacterial LPS enter the lamina propria, the loose connective tissue which lies beneath the epithelium via goblet cell associated passageways. However, epithelial cells overlying the villi can internalize particulate antigens such as bacterial cell debris and inert nanoparticles (NPs), which are then found co-localizing with the CD11c+ dendritic cells in the lamina propria. The extent of NP uptake by IECs depends on their size: 20-40 nm NPs are taken up readily, while NPs larger than 100 nm are taken up mainly by the epithelial cells overlying Peyer's patches. Blocking NPs with small proteins or conjugating them with ovalbumin does not inhibit their uptake. However, the uptake of 40 nm NPs can be inhibited when they are administered with an endocytosis inhibitor (chlorpromazine). Delineating the mechanisms of antigen uptake in the gut is essential for understanding how tolerance and immunity to lumen antigens are generated, and for the development of mucosal vaccines and therapies.