Putting the ‘hair’ in airway cells

The structures that generate the 'hair-like' protrusions coating cells in the airway are produced using many of the same key proteins as dividing cells.

Image of multicilliated cells in the airway amplifying the centrioles (green) that will attach to their surface and anchor motile cilia in place. Image credit: Gina LoMastro (CC BY 4.0)

Every day, we inhale thousands of viruses, bacteria and pollution particles. To protect against these threats, cells in our airways produce mucus that traps inhaled particles before they reach the lungs. This mucus then needs to be removed to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for microbes that may cause a respiratory infection. This is the responsibility of cells covered in tiny hair-like structures called cilia that move together to propel the mucus-trapped particles out of the airways.

These specialized cells can have up to 300 motile cilia on their surface, which grow from structures called centrioles that then anchor the cilia in place. Multiciliated cells are generated from precursor cells that only have two centrioles. Therefore, as these precursors develop, they must produce large numbers of centrioles, considerably more than other cells that only need a couple of extra centrioles during cell division. However, recent studies have questioned whether the precursors of multiciliated cells rely on the same regulatory proteins to produce centrioles as dividing cells.

To help answer this question, LoMastro et al. created genetically engineered mice that lacked or had an inactive form of PLK4, a protein which controls centriole formation in all cell types lacking multiple cilia. This showed that multiciliated cells also need this protein to produce centrioles. LoMastro et al. also found that multiciliated cells became larger while building centrioles, suggesting that this amplification process helps control the cell’s final size.

Defects in motile cilia activity can lead to fluid build-up in the brain, respiratory infections and infertility. Unfortunately, these disorders are difficult to diagnose currently and there is no cure. The findings of LoMastro et al. further our understanding of how motile cilia are built and maintained, and may help future scientists to develop better diagnostic tools and treatments for patients.