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BiteSized Immunology: Receptors & Molecules

Bitesized Immunology

Pattern recognition receptors (PRRs): toll-like receptors

Rossana Zaru, European Bioinformatics Institute EMBL-EBI, UK

Toll-like receptors (TLRs) are pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) which play a crucial in the initiation of innate immune response by detecting potential harmful pathogens. In mammals, the number of TLRs varies between species: human have 10 TLRs whereas mouse have 12 TLRs. They are specialised in the recognition of conserved molecular structures in bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Each TLR has a broad range of specificities (Figure 1).

  • TLR1, 2, 4 and 6 recognise bacterial lipids
  • TLR3, 7 and 8 recognise viral RNA
  • TLR9 recognises bacterial DNA
  • TLR5 and 10 recognise bacterial or parasite proteins

TLRs are type I transmembrane receptors composed of an extracellular domain involved in the recognition of the microbial product, and a TIR domain in the cytoplasmic tail that recruits different signalling molecules that will in turn activate the transcription of genes involved in inflammation and in anti-microbial defences. Each TLR tailors the immune response to the pathogen that they sense.

PRR - Toll-like Receptors Figure 1
Figure 1.PRR Toll like Receptors. 


TLR signalling initiates with the recruitment of adaptors proteins to their cytoplasmic tail.

There are two main adaptors: MYD88 and TRIF.

  • TLR 1,2,4,5,6,7,8 and 9 use MYD88
  • TLR 3 and 4 use TRIF

In addition, TLR1, 2, 4 and 6 need a second adaptor called TIRAP to recruit MYD88 and TLR4 needs TRAM to recruit TRIF. These adaptors recruit several proteins, such as kinases, which initiate different signalling cascades.

Three main pathways are activated by TLRs:

  • MAP kinase pathway (ERK, p38 and JNK)
  • NFkB pathway
  • IRF pathway
PRR - Toll-like Receptors Figure 2
Figure 2. PRR - Toll-like Receptors.


TLR-mediated signalling pathways lead to the translocation of transcription factors, such as NFkB and IRFs in the nucleus, where they activate the transcription of several genes involved in the immune response which eventually result in the elimination of the pathogen.

The following are some of the elements induced upon TLR stimulation:

  • Pro-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-6, TNF-alpha and IL-12
  • Anti-inflammatory cytokines such as IL-10

These cytokines shape the T-cell response.

  • Type I IFNs which are involved in anti-viral responses
  • Chemokines which attract other immune cells to the site of infection
  • Chemokine receptors which, for example, allow TLR-activated cells to migrate to lymph nodes
  • Anti-microbial molecules
  • Co-stimulatory molecules such as CD80/86 and CD40 which are involved in T-cell activation by antigen presenting cells

TLR signalling is also important for enhancing antigen uptake and presentation.

Despite the different TLRs having several signalling pathways in common they are nonetheless able to tune the quality, the intensity and the duration of each of these signalling cascades to generate an immune response specific for the pathogen they are sensing.

© The copyright for this work resides with the BSI.

Pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) - toll-like receptors.pdf (532 KB)
Pattern recognition receptors (PRRs) - toll-like receptors.pdf (532 KB)