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Note: Research in this publication was not performed at Janelia.
Macrophages continuously survey their environment in search of pathogens or apoptotic corpses or debris. Targets intended for clearance expose ligands that initiate their phagocytosis ("eat me" signals), while others avoid phagocytosis by displaying inhibitory ligands ("don't eat me" signals). We report that such ligands can be obscured by the glycosaminoglycans and glycoproteins that coat pathogenic as well as malignant phagocytic targets. In addition, a reciprocal barrier of self-synthesized or acquired glycocalyx components on the macrophage surface shrouds phagocytic receptors, curtailing their ability to engage particles. The coating layers of macrophages and their targets hinder phagocytosis by both steric and electrostatic means. Their removal by enzymatic means is shown to markedly enhance phagocytic efficiency. In particular, we show that the removal of mucins, which are overexpressed in cancer cells, facilitates their clearance. These results shed light on the physical barriers that modulate phagocytosis, which have been heretofore underappreciated.