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J Immunol. 2013 Jun 15;190(12):6269-76. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.1202533. Epub 2013 May 8.

Markers of nonselective and specific NK cell activation.

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Division of Pediatric Rheumatology, Department of Pediatrics, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, MO 63110, USA.


NK cell activation is controlled by the integration of signals from cytokine receptors and germline-encoded activation and inhibitory receptors. NK cells undergo two distinct phases of activation during murine CMV (MCMV) infection: a nonselective phase mediated by proinflammatory cytokines and a specific phase driven by signaling through Ly49H, an NK cell activation receptor that recognizes infected cells. We sought to delineate cell surface markers that could distinguish NK cells that had been activated nonselectively from those that had been specifically activated through NK cell receptors. We demonstrated that stem cell Ag 1 (Sca-1) is highly upregulated during viral infections (to an even greater extent than CD69) and serves as a novel marker of early, nonselective NK cell activation. Indeed, a greater proportion of Sca-1(+) NK cells produced IFN-γ compared with Sca-1(-) NK cells during MCMV infection. In contrast to the universal upregulation of Sca-1 (as well as KLRG1) on NK cells early during MCMV infection, differential expression of Sca-1, as well as CD27 and KLRG1, was observed on Ly49H(+) and Ly49H(-) NK cells late during MCMV infection. Persistently elevated levels of KLRG1 in the context of downregulation of Sca-1 and CD27 were observed on NK cells that expressed Ly49H. Furthermore, the differential expression patterns of these cell surface markers were dependent on Ly49H recognition of its ligand and did not occur solely as a result of cellular proliferation. These findings demonstrate that a combination of Sca-1, CD27, and KLRG1 can distinguish NK cells nonselectively activated by cytokines from those specifically stimulated through activation receptors.

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