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Mechnikov, Ilya Ilich

cells phagocytosis human phagocytic

(Russ), Elie Metchnikof ( Fr ) [mech nikof] (1845–1916) Russian–French biologist: discoverer of phagocytosis.

Educated in Russia and Germany, Mechnikov taught zoology in Odessa from 1872. Some 10 years later he inherited modest wealth and went to Messina in Italy on a research visit. There he studied the conveniently transparent larvae of starfish and noticed that some of their cells could engulf and digest foreign particles; he called these amoeba-like cells ‘phagocytes’ (cell-eaters). In 1888 he moved to Paris to the Pasteur Institute and continued his search for phagocytic action. He found that in human blood a large proportion of the white cells (leucocytes) are phagocytic and will attack invading bacteria. Infection leads to an increase in the number of white cells, and phagocytosis at the site of a local infection leads to inflammation and a hot, red, swollen and painful region with dead phagocytes forming pus. From 1898 Mechnikov studied human ageing; he believed that phagocytes eventually began to digest the cells of the host (an early idea of auto-immune disease) aided by the effects of intestinal bacteria. If these effects could be resisted, he argued, the normal human life-span would be 120–130 years. For his work on phagocytosis he shared a Nobel Prize in 1908.

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