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Front Physiol. 2012 Apr 10;3:72. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2012.00072. eCollection 2012.

Multifaceted roles of tunneling nanotubes in intercellular communication.

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Unité de traffic membranaire et pathogenèse, Institut Pasteur Paris, France.


Cell-to-cell communication and exchange of materials are vital processes in multicellular organisms during cell development, cell repair, and cell survival. In neuronal and immunological cells, intercellular transmission between neighboring cells occurs via different complex junctions or synapses. Recently, long distance intercellular connections in mammalian cells called tunneling nanotubes (TNTs) have been described. These structures have been found in numerous cell types and shown to transfer signals and cytosolic materials between distant cells, suggesting that they might play a prominent role in intercellular trafficking. However, these cellular connections are very heterogeneous in both structure and function, giving rise to more questions than answers as to their nature and role as intercellular conduits. To better understand and characterize the functions of TNTs, we have highlighted here the latest discoveries regarding the formation, structure, and role of TNTs in cell-to-cell spreading of various signals and materials. We first gathered information regarding their formation with an emphasis on the triggering mechanisms observed, such as stress and potentially important proteins and/or signaling pathways. We then describe the various types of transfer mechanisms, in relation to signals and cargoes that have been shown recently to take advantage of these structures for intercellular transfer. Because a number of pathogens were shown to use these membrane bridges to spread between cells we also draw attention to specific studies that point toward a role for TNTs in pathogen spreading. In particular we discuss the possible role that TNTs might play in prion spreading, and speculate on their role in neurological diseases in general.


intercellular communication; long-range connections; organelle transfer; pathogen spreading; signal spreading; tunneling nanotubes; vesicular transport

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