By Phil Plait | February 4, 2010 10:11 am

This has already made the rounds of the blogoverse, but it’s so cool: video of a leukocyte chasing down and eating a bacterium.

I know it’s just biochemicals in action, a billion years of evolution writ small. But it’s still creepy and amazing.

And I learned a new word: this type of white blood cell is called a polymorphonuclear leukocyte, or, for short… a neutrophil.

That is so cool! And it will be my new superhero name.

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No bacterium shall escape my sight
Let those who worship microscopic evil,
Beware my power… NEUTROPHIL!

Hmm, that needs work. But not now, for there are microorganisms to ingest! Away!

Tip o’ the pseudopod to Orac.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Geekery, Science
MORE ABOUT: leukocyte, neutrophil, Orac

Comments (39)

  1. Andy Beaton

    I’d be more impressed if Neutrophil had the ability to command THE POWER OF NEUTRONS!

  2. Acky

    @1 – On the other hand… THE POWER OF PHILS!

    BA, run!

  3. Dan

    Wow, that is eerie (the video, not our new superhero Neutrophil). If you are looking for something to be thankful for, be thankful you aren’t a bacterium!


    Squishy science in action!

  5. Charlie Young

    Well, that’s what you get for going the astronomy route. Those words are plentiful in the biological and medical sciences. Of course, you have many technical words that surprise me when I come to check out your latest post on astronomy. Its all good! However, I’m missing the point. I still haven’t found a good astro term for my name.

  6. The poor bacterium never stood a chance.

  7. Coriolis

    Sure, but let’s see what your sidekicks, Eosinophil and Basophil can do.

  8. “NEUTROPHIL…! Is he a power for good…or EVIL? Neither! He is pledged to…NEUTRALITY!”

  9. Er, you realize having a name like Neutrophil makes it sound like you just got fixed at the vet, right?

  10. To the Hemobile! Phages are afoot!

  11. North of 49

    Not to anthropomorphise the behaviour of single-celled creatures, but it certainly did look as if that bacterium was running away from our Hero, fearless Great Hunter, Neutrophil. Do bacteria have some way of detecting that they’re being pursued, or was that seeming panicked flight just its normal random locomotion?

    Anyway, good on Neutrophil for sticking to the chase. It reminded me of one of those Cops night-vision car-chase clips shot from a helicopter.

  12. LMR

    Not a biologist, so this may be a simple answer … how does the neutrophil “know” where the bacteria is? Is the bacteria leaving some sort of chemical trail that the neutrophil is following, or is the motion of the bacteria causing a physical disturbance that the neutrophil can follow (like following something “thumping” around the house)?

  13. For my money, that was as good as a cheetah chasing down a gazelle. I really wanted the leukocyte to catch the bacterium.

  14. I kept expecting the bacterium to start flashing and turn color. (waka waka waka)

  15. “…a polymorphonuclear leukocyte, or, for short… a neutrophil.”

    OK, for all you microbiologists, how do you get “neutrophil” out of “polymorphonuclear leukocyte”? I can sort of see “neutro” out of “nuclear” but it’s a stretch. Also is the “phil” from “phillic” as in “like” or “attracted to”?

    Enquiring minds want to know.

    – Jack

  16. Charlie Young

    LMR (#13) They give an explanation in the text below the movie. It seems the neutrophil is either attracted by a component of the immune system that attaches to foreign bodies in the blood stream or a surface antigen on the bacteria itself.


    @ LMR (#13),

    In the description below the video, it states:

    The chemo-attractant derived from the microbe is unclear, but may be complement fragment C5a, generated by the interaction of antibodies in the blood serum with the complement cascade, and/or bacterial N-formyl peptides.

    P.S. Wikipedia: C5a receptor; Complement component 5a.

  18. “Everybody’s doin’ a brand new dance now.
    (C’mon baby do the leukomotion.) “

  19. Charlie Young

    @ Jack Hagerty Its been years since I had to recite immunology, but from what I remember, polymorphonuclear leukocytes are a specific name for the cell and neutrophil has to do with stains used for observing cells under a microscope. I could be wrong since my memory is cloudy on this. Wikipedia will be a quick answer…which I did, and it looks like my simplification was close. PMNs are a type of immune cell including neutrophils, basophils, and eosinophils. The names are based on the cytological stains used to observe them.

  20. Coriolis

    It’s a process known as opsonization, whereby an antibody or a complement binds to the antigen (any unique molecular formation recognized as ‘foreign’) on the bacterial surface. The leukocyte is chemically attracted to the antibody, which induces phagocytosis.
    Shorter translation; antibodies are salt and pepper for hungry neutrophils and monocytes.

  21. Charlie Young

    I like how these discussion force me to review my 25 year old knowledge on subjects I haven’t done in detail since then!

  22. Tom Woolf

    Add a little soundtrack, maybe the Jaws “the shark’s a-comin!” dirge…..

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    PMNs are a type of immune cell including neutrophils, basophils, and eosinophils. The names are based on the cytological stains used to observe them.

    So, the first superhero named after a stain?

    Surely then his faithful sidekick superhero dog must be Spot?!

  24. Shoeshine Boy

    @Harold (#9) “What makes a good man go neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?” — Zapp Brannigan

  25. WetChet

    Dumb question: I had to watch the WMV version — is the QuickTime different? The leukocyte never actually catches the bacterium from what I saw.

  26. paradoctor

    Fixed it for you:
    “… Let those who wish the body ill
    beware my power – NEUTROPHIL!”

  27. Leon

    I prefer the homebrewer’s motto:

    In brightest day, in blackest night,
    No make my brew; I brew it right.
    Let those who sip commercial swill
    Beware my power… HOME BREWER SKILL!

  28. Chris

    PMN’s are so-named because they have weird nuclei, usually three lobes connected by thin strands. They are called neutrophils because their cytoplasmic granules pick up very little of the eosin that normally stains the cytoplasm and thus have a pale-pink staining cytoplasm (using Wright’s blood stain).

    You could call yourself “basophil” – that’s a more decisive and masculine name. Eosinophil is just as decisive but I think it has a more feminine sound.

  29. mccavity

    I remember learning all the blood cell lines in my hematology and hematopathology classes. I always thought the names for the red blood cell line sounded like attacks from an anime TV show. I could just see it now: “Haha! See how you handle the power of my POLYCHROMATOPHILIC NORMOBLAST!”

    Also, as others above said, the neutrophil, eosinophil, and basophil words have to do with their staining characteristic under the Wright’s stain. Eosinophils have more acidic granules, which attract eosin; basophils have basic granules, which attracts methylene blue; and neutrophils usually have a little granulation that’s generally neutral. In fact, excess neutrophil granulation (called toxic granulation) can help diagnose a disease state.

    neutrophils, eosinophils, and basophils branch off from the same cell lines, and have different purposes. Neutrophils eat foreign bodies, especially bacteria, and the granules inside use hydrogen peroxide to kill them; and have a role in the complement pathway, which can destroy foreign cells (by forming what amounts to a microscopic auger to “pop” the cell) or labels them for destruction. Eosinophils are associated with allergies and parasites, and their granules contain chemicals like histamine. Basophils have some association with some parasites and allergies as well, although we’re not as clear on their purpose. They’re also more abundant in heavy metal poisoning.

    And that’s only one branch of white blood cells. There are two other main branches!

  30. Coriolis @8 beat me to it.

  31. Chaz

    Is this thing migrating around again? I remember watching this in immunology.

    Another cool cell video, if you haven’t seen it, was developed from the science people out at Harvard about a year and a half ago.

    This is the version with no dialogue, which I like better, since I can tell what’s going on. Most of the protein stuctures, if not all, have actually been solved, so you could say that the ‘cartoons’ are pretty real.


  32. Charlie @20 (and others) – Thanks. I learn a lot from this blog, and fairly painlessly!

    – Jack

  33. I believe the same thing happened to Donald Pleasance in Fantastic Voyage.

  34. One Eyed Jack

    I look at these all day long and now they invade one of my favorite blogs? Get thee back, minions of evil!

    BTW, Phil, the more common names for a PMN are “poly” and “seg” (short for segmented). I doubt you want to be called Polly, but it wouldn’t be horrible to be known as “segsy”. 😉

  35. Charlie Young

    Chaz (#32) That was a cool video. I remember many of the structures of the proteins from biochem and cell biology 30 years ago. Pretty cool that the computer technology has caught up and allowed animations to be made of this stuff. It also looks like there is a greater understanding of the function of most of those proteins, also. I suppose all that info I accumulated is now being taught to high school freshmen. *SIGH* I’m getting old…

  36. Britt

    My theme music is the music that plays after you eat a big dot in pac man.

    Also, this may be the smallest manifestation of OM NOM NOM I’ve ever seen.

  37. Vidar

    Phil, did you just rip off the Green Lantern? The guy who is weak to THE COLOUR YELLOW?

  38. Chris

    I thought it was cool because I know it was only motivated by chemical clues!

    Plus it was captured on black and white film before I was born! Barely.

    Umm… I hate to do this, but could some of you deal with Mr. I.M. Stupid who calls himself Dr. I.M. Smart? Personally I am tired of the idiot. He has no clue that he has not answered the question that he posed to me.



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