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Flagellin: Whipping up immunity

Emory scientists are looking in an unusual place for a way to bulk up the body’s defenses—the tails of bacteria. What they are finding is that flagellin—a building block of the miniature whips that bacteria use to move—may act as a protective agent to strengthen the body’s innate defenses.

“Flagellin activates the body’s own internal defense pathways,” says Emory pathologist Andrew Gewirtz. “It also helps cells survive situations where they’d usually die.”

The immune system evolved to recognize flagellin because so many types of bacteria have it. When cells in the lungs and intestines sense flagellin’s presence, an ensuing flurry of signals strengthens barriers and stimulates immune cells that can go after invaders.

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