Research Article

Mammalian lipid droplets are innate immune hubs integrating cell metabolism and host defense

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Science  16 Oct 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6514, eaay8085
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay8085

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Cells drop a bomb on pathogens

Lipid droplets (LDs) accumulate in cells to serve as lipid storage organelles. They are also an attractive source of nutrients for many pathogens. Bosch et al. show that various proteins involved in innate immunity form complexes on LDs in response to bacterial lipopolysaccharide (see the Perspective by Green). Upon activation, LDs became physically uncoupled from mitochondria, driving a shift in cells from oxidative phosphorylation to aerobic glycolysis. This work highlights the ability of LDs both to kill pathogens directly and to establish a metabolic environment conducive to host defense. This may inform future antimicrobial strategies in the age of antibiotic resistance.

Science, this issue p. eaay8085; see also p. 294

Structured Abstract


In all eukaryotic cells, lipid droplets (LDs) store and supply essential lipids to produce signaling molecules, membrane building blocks, and metabolic energy. The LD monolayer also accommodates proteins not obviously related to lipids, such as transcription factors, chromatin components, and toxic proteins.

Common parasites (such as trypanosomes and Plasmodium falciparum), bacteria (such as mycobacteria and Chlamydia), and viruses (such as hepatitis C and dengue) induce and target LDs during their life cycles. The current view is that LDs support infection, providing microorganisms with substrates for effective growth.


Successful innate defense is critical for survival, and host species have efficiently coevolved with pathogens to develop a plethora of immune responses. Multiple cues, including cellular stress and danger-associated molecular patterns such as lipopolysaccharide (LPS), induce LD formation. Thus, LD localization and dynamics may potentially be advantageous for organizing an intracellular host defense. We have investigated the possibility that mammalian LDs have a direct and regulated role in innate immunity.


We show that mammalian LDs are endowed with a protein-mediated antimicrobial capacity, which is up-regulated during polymicrobial sepsis and by LPS. Light and electron microscopy demonstrated specific association of LDs and bacteria in human macrophages, suggesting the existence of docking mechanisms that facilitate the engagement of antibacterial LD proteins with bacteria.

A comparative mass spectrometry profiling of proteins differentially associated with LDs in response to LPS (LPS-LDs) revealed the profound remodeling of the organelle proteome. A stringent evaluation identified 689 proteins differentially regulated on LPS-LDs (317 enriched and 372 reduced). Ingenuity Pathway Analysis revealed an enrichment of innate immune system–related components and reduction of metabolism-related LD-resident proteins. Additional analyses suggested that LDs serve as innate immune hubs, integrating major intra- and extracellular immune responses.

Among the five members of the perilipin family of LD surface proteins (PLINs), PLIN5 was the only one down-regulated on LPS-LDs. PLIN5 reduction promoted physical and functional disconnection of LPS-LDs and mitochondria, with a concomitant reduction of oxidative metabolism and ketogenesis. Forced PLIN5 reexpression increased the number of LD-mitochondria contacts, reducing LD-bacteria interactions and compromising the antimicrobial capacity of cells.

By contrast, PLIN2 was the most up-regulated PLIN on LPS-LDs. Gene interaction analysis revealed that multiple immune proteins nucleated around PLIN2 in response to LPS. LPS-LDs accrued several interferon-inducible proteins such as viperin, IGTP, IIGP1, TGTP1, and IFI47. Furthermore, LPS-LDs also accumulated cathelicidin (CAMP), a broad-spectrum antimicrobial peptide with chemotactic properties. Cells overexpressing a LD-associated CAMP were more resistant to different bacterial species, including Escherichia coli, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and Listeria monocytogenes.


These results demonstrate that LDs form a first-line intracellular defense. They act as a molecular switch in innate immunity, responding to danger signals by both reprogramming cell metabolism and eliciting protein-mediated antimicrobial mechanisms. Mechanisms of LD trafficking and docking with phagocytic and parasitophorous membranes, observed here and described for several pathogens, may facilitate the delivery of immune proteins located on the LD surface. Intracellular LDs can provide infected cells with several biological benefits, serving as a location to attract pathogens as well as coordinating different immune systems that operate simultaneously against different classes of pathogens. LDs may also sequester cytotoxic compounds (such as antimicrobial peptides), reducing damage to other cellular organelles. In view of the widespread resistance to current antibiotics, this study helps decipher molecular mechanisms involved in antimicrobial defense that could be exploited for development of new anti-infective agents.

LDs mediate innate immune defense.

Serial blockface scanning electron microscopy data reconstruction showing an infected macrophage. Bacteria (blue) and LDs (green) in the three-dimensional dataset have been colored and projected onto a single image. LDs associate with the bacteria surface (black square). This interaction is proposed to bring a specific set of antipathogenic proteins in contact with the membrane-enclosing bacteria (inset).


Lipid droplets (LDs) are the major lipid storage organelles of eukaryotic cells and a source of nutrients for intracellular pathogens. We demonstrate that mammalian LDs are endowed with a protein-mediated antimicrobial capacity, which is up-regulated by danger signals. In response to lipopolysaccharide (LPS), multiple host defense proteins, including interferon-inducible guanosine triphosphatases and the antimicrobial cathelicidin, assemble into complex clusters on LDs. LPS additionally promotes the physical and functional uncoupling of LDs from mitochondria, reducing fatty acid metabolism while increasing LD-bacterial contacts. Thus, LDs actively participate in mammalian innate immunity at two levels: They are both cell-autonomous organelles that organize and use immune proteins to kill intracellular pathogens as well as central players in the local and systemic metabolic adaptation to infection.

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