Two modes of lytic granule fusion during degranulation by natural killer cells

Dongfang Liu, Jose A. Martina, Xufeng S. Wu, John A. Hammer, Eric O. Long

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Lytic granules in cytotoxic lymphocytes, which include T cells and natural killer (NK) cells, are secretory lysosomes that release their content upon fusion with the plasma membrane (PM), a process known as degranulation. Although vesicle exocytosis has been extensively studied in endocrine and neuronal cells, much less is known about the fusion of lytic granules in cytotoxic lymphocytes. Here, we used total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy to examine lytic granules labeled with fluorescently tagged Fas ligand (FasL) in the NK cell line NKL stimulated with phorbol ester and ionomycin and in primary NK cells activated by physiological receptor-ligand interactions. Two fusion modes were observed: complete fusion, characterized by loss of granule content and rapid diffusion of FasL at the PM; and incomplete fusion, characterized by transient fusion pore opening and retention of FasL at the fusion site. The pH-sensitive green fluorescence protein (pHluorin) fused to the lumenal domain of FasL was used to visualize fusion pore opening with a time resolution of 30 ms. Upon incomplete fusion, pHluorin emission lasted several seconds in the absence of noticeable diffusion. Thus, we conclude that lytic granules in NK cells undergo both complete and incomplete fusion with the PM, and propose that incomplete fusion may promote efficient recycling of lytic granule membrane after the release of cytotoxic effector molecules.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)728-738
Number of pages11
JournalImmunology and Cell Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 2011


  • degranulation
  • fusion
  • human
  • lytic granules
  • natural killer cells

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology
  • Cell Biology


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