The Toll receptor was first found to function in the dorsoventral patterning pathway of Drosophila embryos. It is activated by a specific protein ligand, Spätzle, generated at ventral positions in the early embryo. Drosophila Toll (dToll) also functions in innate immune responses to Gram-positive bacteria and fungi, and Spätzle is required for this response. We have shown that Spätzle is necessary and sufficient for activation of the dToll pathway, and that it probably acts by cross-linking two molecules of Toll to form homodimers. In the present paper, we contrast this mode of regulation with that proposed for the vertebrate Toll-like receptor family, which mediate analogous responses to pathogen pattern antigens. In contrast with dToll, these receptors appear to be activated by direct exposure to pathogen patterns, such as peptidoglycan and lipopolysaccharide. We discuss the evolutionary basis of this functional divergence of the vertebrate and invertebrate Toll-like receptors.

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