A critical reappraisal of neutrophil extracellular traps and NETosis mimics based on differential requirements for protein citrullination

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NETosis, an antimicrobial form of neutrophil cell death, is considered a primary source of citrullinated autoantigens in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and immunogenic DNA in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Activation of the citrullinating enzyme peptidylarginine deiminase type 4 (PAD4) is believed to be essential for neutrophil extracellular trap (NET) formation and NETosis. PAD4 is therefore viewed as a promising therapeutic target to inhibit the formation of NETs in both diseases. In this review, we examine the evidence for PAD4 activation during NETosis and provide experimental data to suggest that protein citrullination is not a universal feature of NETs. We delineate two distinct biological processes, leukotoxic hypercitrullination (LTH) and defective mitophagy, which have been erroneously classified as "NETosis." While these NETosis mimics share morphological similarities with NETosis (i.e., extracellular DNA release), they are biologically distinct. As such, these processes can be readily classified by their stimuli, activation of distinct biochemical pathways, the presence of hypercitrullination, and antimicrobial effector function. NETosis is an antimicrobial form of cell death that is NADPH oxidase-dependent and not associated with hypercitrullination. In contrast, LTH is NADPH oxidase-independent and not bactericidal. Rather, LTH represents a bacterial strategy to achieve immune evasion. It is triggered by pore-forming pathways and equivalent signals that cumulate in calcium-dependent hyperactivation of PADs, protein hypercitrullination, and neutrophil death. The generation of citrullinated autoantigens in RA is likely driven by LTH, but not NETosis. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) expulsion, the result of a constitutive defect in mitophagy, represents a second NETosis mimic. In the presence of interferon-a and immune complexes, this process can generate highly interferogenic oxidized mtDNA, which has previously been mistaken for NETosis in SLE. Distinguishing NETosis from LTH and defective mitophagy is paramount to understanding the role of neutrophil damage in immunity and the pathogenesis of human diseases. This provides a framework to design specific inhibitors of these distinct biological processes in human disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number461
JournalFrontiers in immunology
Issue numberNOV
StatePublished - Nov 4 2016


  • Citrullination
  • Leukotoxic hypercitrullination
  • Mitophagy
  • NADPH oxidase
  • NETosis
  • Peptidylarginine deiminase
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology


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