During normal tissue remodeling, macrophages remove unwanted cells, including those that have undergone programmed cell death, or apoptosis. This widespread process extends to the deletion of thymocytes (negative selection), in which cells expressing inappropriate Ag receptors undergo apoptosis, and are phagocytosed by thymic macrophages. Although phagocytosis of effete leukocytes by macrophages has been known since the time of Metchnikoff, only recently has it been recognized that apoptosis leads to surface changes that allow recognition and removal of these cells before they are lysed. Our data suggest that macrophages specifically recognize phosphatidylserine that is exposed on the surface of lymphocytes during the development of apoptosis. Macrophage phagocytosis of apoptotic lymphocytes was inhibited, in a dose-dependent manner, by liposomes containing phosphatidyl-L-serine, but not by liposomes containing other anionic phospholipids, including phosphatidyl-D-serine. Phagocytosis of apoptotic lymphocytes was also inhibited by the L isoforms of compounds structurally related to phosphatidylserine, including glycerophosphorylserine and phosphoserine. The membranes of apoptotic lymphocytes bound increased amounts of merocyanine 540 dye relative to those of normal cells, indicating that their membrane lipids were more loosely packed, consistent with a loss of membrane phospholipid asymmetry. Apoptotic lymphocytes were shown to express phosphatidylserine (PS) externally, because PS on their surfaces was accessible to derivatization by fluorescamine, and because apoptotic cells expressed procoagulant activity. These observations suggest that apoptotic lymphocytes lose membrane phospholipid asymmetry and expose phosphatidylserine on the outer leaflet of the plasma membrane. Macrophages then phagocytose apoptotic lymphocytes after specific recognition of the exposed PS.

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