In metazoans, removal of cells in situ is involved in larval maturation, metamorphosis, and embryonic development. In adults, such cell removal plays a role in the homeostatic maintenance of cell numbers and tissue integrity as well as in the response to cell injury and damage. This removal involves uptake of the whole or fragmented target cells into phagocytes. Depending on the organism, these latter may be near-neighbor tissue cells and/or professional phagocytes such as, in vertebrates, members of the myeloid family of cells, especially macrophages. The uptake processes appear to involve specialized and highly conserved recognition ligands and receptors, intracellular signaling in the phagocytes, and mechanisms for ingestion. The recognition of cells destined for this form of removal is critical and, significantly, is distinguished for the most part from the recognition of foreign materials and organisms by the innate and adaptive immune systems. In keeping with the key role of cell removal in maintaining tissue homeostasis, constant cell removal is normally silent, i.e., does not initiate a local tissue reaction. This article discusses these complex and wide-ranging processes in general terms as well as the implications when these processes are disrupted in inflammation, immunity, and disease.


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