Interferon type I

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The 3D structure of human IFN-β

Human type I interferons comprise a vast and growing group of IFN proteins.

All type I IFNs bind to a specific cell surface receptor complex known as the IFN-α receptor (IFNAR) that consists of IFNAR1 and IFNAR2 chains.

Homologous molecules to type I IFNs are found in many species, including all mammals, and some have been identified in birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish species.[1][2] Joyce Taylor-Papadimitriou was the first to identify that the action of interferon type 1 requires the synthesis of effector proteins.

Mammalian types[edit]

The mammalian types are designated IFN-α (alpha), IFN-β (beta), IFN-κ (kappa), IFN-δ (delta), IFN-ε (epsilon), IFN-τ (tau), IFN-ω (omega), and IFN-ζ (zeta, also known as limitin).[3][4]


The IFN-α proteins are produced by leukocytes. They are mainly involved in innate immune response against viral infection. They come in 13 subtypes that are called IFNA1, IFNA2, IFNA4, IFNA5, IFNA6, IFNA7, IFNA8, IFNA10, IFNA13, IFNA14, IFNA16, IFNA17, IFNA21. These genes for these IFN-α molecules are found together in a cluster on chromosome 9.

IFN-α is also made synthetically as medication. Types are:


The IFN-β proteins are produced in large quantities by fibroblasts. They have antiviral activity that is involved mainly in innate immune response. Two types of IFN-β have been described, IFN-β1 (IFNB1) and IFN-β3 (IFNB3)[5] (a gene designated IFN-β2 is actually IL-6). IFN-β1 is used as a treatment for multiple sclerosis as it reduces the relapse rate.

IFN-β1 is not an appropriate treatment for patients with progressive, non-relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis.[6]

IFN-ε, –κ, -τ, -δ, and –ζ[edit]

IFN-ε, –κ, -τ, and –ζ appear, at this time, to come in a single isoform in humans, IFNK. Only ruminants encode IFN-τ, a variant of IFN-ω. So far, IFN-ζ is found only in mice, while a structural homolog, IFN-δ is found in a diverse array of non-primate and non-rodent placental mammals. Most but not all placental mammals encode functional IFN-ε and IFN-κ genes.


IFN-ω, although having only one functional form described to date (IFNW1), has several pseudogenes: IFNWP2, IFNWP4, IFNWP5, IFNWP9, IFNWP15, IFNWP18, and IFNWP19 in humans. Many non-primate placental mammals express multiple IFN-ω subtypes


This subtype of Type I IFN was recently described as a pseudogene in human, but potentially functional in the domestic cat genome. In all other genomes of non-feline placental mammals, IFN-ν is a pseudogene; in some species, the pseudogene is well preserved, while in others, it is badly mutilated or is undetectable. Moreover, in the cat genome, the IFN-ν promoter is deleteriously mutated. It is likely that the IFN-ν gene family was rendered useless prior to mammalian diversification. Its presence on the edge of the Type I IFN locus in mammals may have shielded it from obliteration, allowing its detection.

Sources and functions[edit]

IFN-α and IFN-β are secreted by many cell types including lymphocytes (NK cells, B-cells and T-cells), macrophages, fibroblasts, endothelial cells, osteoblasts and others. They stimulate both macrophages and NK cells to elicit an anti-viral response, and are also active against tumors. Recently, plasmacytoid dendritic cells have been identified as being the most potent producers of type I IFNs in response to antigen, and have thus been coined natural IFN producing cells. Current study findings suggest that by forcing IFN-α expression in tumor-infiltrating macrophages, it is possible to elicit a more effective dendritic cell activation and immune effector cell cytotoxicity.[7]

IFN-ω is released by leukocytes at the site of viral infection or tumors.

IFN-α acts as a pyrogenic factor by altering the activity of thermosensitive neurons in the hypothalamus thus causing fever. It does this by binding to opioid receptors and eliciting the release of prostaglandin-E2 (PGE2).

A similar mechanism is used by IFN-α to reduce pain; IFN-α interacts with the μ-opioid receptor to act as an analgesic.[8]

In mice, IFN-β inhibits immune cells to produce growth factors, thereby slowing tumor growth, and inhibits other cells from producing vessel producing growth factors, thereby blocking tumor angiogenesis and hindering the tumour from connecting into the blood vessel system.[9][10]

Non-mammalian types[edit]

Avian Type I IFNs have been characterized and preliminarily assigned to subtypes (IFN I, IFN II, and IFN III), but their classification into subtypes should await a more extensive characterization of avian genomes.

Functional lizard Type I IFNs can be found in lizard genome databases.

Turtle Type I IFNs have been purified (references from 1970s needed). They resemble mammalian homologs.

The existence of amphibian Type I IFNs have been inferred by the discovery of the genes encoding their receptor chains. They have not yet been purified, or their genes cloned.

Piscine (bony fish) Type I IFN has been cloned in several teleost species. With few exceptions, and in stark contrast to avian and especially mammalian IFNs, they are present as single genes (multiple genes are however seen in polyploid fish genomes, possibly arising from whole-genome duplication). Unlike amniote IFN genes, piscine Type I IFN genes contain introns, in similar positions as do their orthologs, certain interleukins.


  1. ^ Schultz et al., The interferon system of non-mammalian vertebrates. Developmental and Comparative Immunology, Volume 28, pages 499-508.
  2. ^ Samarajiwa et al., Type I interferons: genetics and structure. The Interferons: Characterization and Application, 2006 Wiley-VCH, pages 3-34.
  3. ^ Oritani and Tomiyama, Interferon-ζ/limitin: Novel type I Interferon that displays a narrow range of biological activity. International journal of hematology, 2004, Volume 80, pages 325-331 .
  4. ^ Hardy et al., Characterization of the type I interferon locus and identification of novel genes. Genomics, 2004, Volume 84 pages 331-345.
  5. ^ Todd and Naylor, New chromosomal mapping assignments for argininosuccinate synthetase pseudogene 1, interferon-beta 3 gene, and the diazepam binding inhibitor gene. Somat. Cell. Mol. Genet. 1992 Volume 18, pages 381-5.
  6. ^ American Academy of Neurology (February 2013), "Five Things Physicians and Patients Should Question", Choosing Wisely: an initiative of the ABIM Foundation (American Academy of Neurology), retrieved August 1, 2013 , which cites
    • La Mantia, L.; Vacchi, L.; Di Pietrantonj, C.; Ebers, G.; Rovaris, M.; Fredrikson, S.; Filippini, G. (2012). Interferon beta for secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. In La Mantia, Loredana. "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews". The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 1: CD005181. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005181.pub3. PMID 22258960.  edit
    • Rojas, J. I.; Romano, M.; Ciapponi, A. N.; Patrucco, L.; Cristiano, E. (2010). Interferon Beta for Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. In Rojas, Juan Ignacio. "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews". The Cochrane database of systematic reviews (1): CD006643. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006643.pub3. PMID 20091602.  edit
    • Rojas, J. I.; Romano, M.; Ciapponi, A. N.; Patrucco, L.; Cristiano, E. (2010). Interferon Beta for Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. In Rojas, Juan Ignacio. "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews". The Cochrane database of systematic reviews (1): CD006643. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006643.pub3. PMID 20091602.  edit
  7. ^ Escobar G, Moi D, Ranghetti A et al. (Jan 2014). "Genetic engineering of hematopoiesis for targeted IFN-α delivery inhibits breast cancer progression.". Sci Transl Med. 6 (217): 217. PMID 24382895. 
  8. ^ Wang et al., Fever of recombinant human interferon-alpha is mediated by opioid domain interaction with opioid receptor inducing prostaglandin E2. J Neuroimmunol. 2004 Nov;156(1-2):107-12.
  9. ^ Jadwiga Jablonska; Sara Leschner; Kathrin Westphal; Stefan Lienenklaus; Siegfried Weiss (April 1, 2010). "Neutrophils responsive to endogenous IFN-β regulate tumor angiogenesis and growth in a mouse tumor model" 120 (4). doi:10.1172/JCI37223. 
  10. ^ "The immune system’s guard against cancer". Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research. 6 April 2010. 

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