The follicle-associated epithelium (FAE) covering mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue is distinct from the villous epithelium in cellular composition and functions. Interleukin-22 binding protein (IL-22BP), provided by dendritic cells at the sub-epithelial dome region, inhibits the IL-22-mediated secretion of antimicrobial peptides by the FAE. The Notch signal from stromal cells underneath the FAE diminishes goblet cell differentiation. These events dampen the mucosal barrier functions to allow luminal microorganisms to readily gain access to the luminal surface of the FAE. Furthermore, receptor activator of nucleic factor-kappa B ligand (RANKL) from a certain stromal cell type induces differentiation into microfold (M) cells that specialize in antigen uptake in the mucosa. Microfold (M) cells play a key role in mucosal immune surveillance by actively transporting external antigens from the gut lumen to the lymphoid follicle. The molecular basis of antigen uptake by M cells has been gradually identified in the last decade. For example, GPI-anchored molecules (e.g., glycoprotein 2 (GP2) and cellular prion protein (PrPC)) and β1-integrin facilitate the transport of specific types of xenobiotics. The antigen transport by M cells initiates antigen-specific mucosal immune responses represented by the induction of secretory immunoglobulin A (S-IgA). Meanwhile, several invasive pathogens exploit M cells as a portal to establish a systemic infection. Recent findings have uncovered the molecular machinery of differentiation and functions of M cells.
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