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Tim4, a macrophage receptor for apoptotic cells, binds polystyrene microplastics via aromatic-aromatic interactions

Kuroiwa, M;Yamaguchi, S;Kato, Y;Hori, A;Toyoura, S;Nakahara, M;Morimoto, N;Nakayama, M;

Understanding the interface between microplastics and biological systems will provide new insights into the impacts of microplastics on living organisms. When microplastics enter the body, they are engulfed preferentially by phagocytes such as macrophages. However, it is not fully understood how phagocytes recognize microplastics and how microplastics impact phagocyte functions. In this study, we demonstrate that T cell immunoglobulin mucin 4 (Tim4), a macrophage receptor for phosphatidylserine (PtdSer) on apoptotic cells, binds polystyrene (PS) microparticles as well as multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) through the extracellular aromatic cluster, revealing a novel interface between microplastics and biological systems via aromatic-aromatic interactions. Genetic deletion of Tim4 demonstrated that Tim4 is involved in macrophage engulfment of PS microplastics as well as of MWCNTs. While Tim4-mediated engulfment of MWCNTs causes NLRP3-dependent IL-1β secretion, that of PS microparticles does not. PS microparticles neither induce TNF-α, reactive oxygen species, nor nitric oxide production. These data indicate that PS microparticles are not inflammatory. The PtdSer-binding site of Tim4 contains an aromatic cluster that binds PS, and Tim4-mediated macrophage engulfment of apoptotic cells, a process called efferocytosis, was competitively blocked by PS microparticles. These data suggest that PS microplastics do not directly cause acute inflammation but perturb efferocytosis, raising concerns that chronic exposure to large amounts of PS microplastics may cause chronic inflammation leading to autoimmune diseases.