Neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) are web-like DNA structures released by activated neutrophils. These structures are decorated with antimicrobial proteins, and considered to trap and kill bacteria extracellularly. However, the exact functions of NETs remain elusive, and contradictory observations have been made with NETs functioning as an antimicrobial or a pathogentrapping mechanism. There is a disconnect in the interpretation of the involvement of other major immune mechanisms, such as the complement system, as effectors of the function of NETs. We have recently shown that NETs activate complement.
In this study, we aimed to elucidate the relative antimicrobial roles of NETs in the absence and presence of complement. Using primary human neutrophils, human serum (normal, heat inactivated, and C5-depleted), P. aeruginosa (at multiplicity of infection, MOI, of 1 or 10), S. aureus (MOI of 1), colony-counting assays and confocal microscopy, we demonstrate that most bacteria trapped by NETs remain viable, indicating that NETs have limited bactericidal properties. By contrast, complement effectively killed bacteria, but NETs decreased the bactericidal ability of complement and degrading NETs by DNases restored complement-mediated killing. Experiments with conditions allowing for specific pathway activation showed that the complement classical and lectin, but not the alternative, pathway lead to bacterial killing. NETs under static conditions showed limited killing of bacteria while NETs under dynamic conditions showed enhanced bacteria trapping and reduced killing. Furthermore, NETs incubated with normal human serum depleted complement and reduced the hemolytic capacity of the serum.
This report, for the first time, clarifies the relative bactericidal contributions of NETs and complement. We propose that – while NETs can ensnare bacteria such as P. aeruginosa – complement is necessary for efficient bacterial killing.