Research Article

Mucus Enhances Gut Homeostasis and Oral Tolerance by Delivering Immunoregulatory Signals

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Science  25 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6157, pp. 447-453
DOI: 10.1126/science.1237910

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Guardian of the Gut

The intestine is able to tolerate continual exposure to large amounts of commensal bacteria and foreign food antigens without triggering an inappropriate inflammatory immune response. In the large intestine, this immunological tolerance is thought to occur via a physical separation between environment and host imposed by a continuous mucous layer built up from the secreted mucin protein, MUC2. However, in the small intestine, this mucous layer is porous, necessitating an additional layer of immune control. Shan et al. (p. 447, published online 26 September; see the Perspective by Belkaid and Grainger) now report that in the small intestine, MUC2 plays an active role in immunological tolerance by activating a transcription factor in resident dendritic cells, thereby selectively blocking their ability to launch an inflammatory response. This work identifies MUC2 as a central mediator of immune tolerance to maintain homeostasis in the gut and possibly at other mucosal surfaces in the body.


A dense mucus layer in the large intestine prevents inflammation by shielding the underlying epithelium from luminal bacteria and food antigens. This mucus barrier is organized around the hyperglycosylated mucin MUC2. Here we show that the small intestine has a porous mucus layer, which permitted the uptake of MUC2 by antigen-sampling dendritic cells (DCs). Glycans associated with MUC2 imprinted DCs with anti-inflammatory properties by assembling a galectin-3–Dectin-1–FcγRIIB receptor complex that activated β-catenin. This transcription factor interfered with DC expression of inflammatory but not tolerogenic cytokines by inhibiting gene transcription through nuclear factor κB. MUC2 induced additional conditioning signals in intestinal epithelial cells. Thus, mucus does not merely form a nonspecific physical barrier, but also constrains the immunogenicity of gut antigens by delivering tolerogenic signals.

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