The barrier epithelia of multicellular organisms frequently come into direct contact with microorganisms and thus need to fulfill the important task of preventing the penetration of pathogens that could cause systemic infections. A functional immune defence in the epithelial linings of the digestive, respiratory and reproductive organs as well as the epidermis/skin of animals is therefore of crucial importance for survival. Epithelial defence reactions are likely to be evolutionarily ancient, and the use of invertebrate animal models, such as insects and nematodes, has been crucial in unravelling the mechanisms underlying epithelial immunity. This review addresses basic questions of epithelial immunity in animals and humans. It focuses on recent developments in the understanding of the immune responses in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and how the innate immune system acts locally in the epidermis and cuticle, tracheae, gut and genital organs. Both basal immune activities in epithelia that are constantly exposed to microbes as well as positive and negative regulation in response to pathogenic organisms are covered. Important immuno-physiological aspects of epithelial defence mechanisms are also discussed, such as wound healing, re-epithelialization and intestinal homeostasis.

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