Cholangiocytes, the epithelial cells lining intrahepatic bile ducts, are ciliated cells. Each cholangiocyte has a primary cilium consisting of (i) a microtubule-based axoneme and (ii) the basal body, centriole-derived, microtubule-organizing center from which the axoneme emerges. Primary cilia in cholangiocytes were described decades ago, but their physiological and pathophysiological significance remained unclear until recently. We now recognize that cholangiocyte cilia extend from the apical plasma membrane into the bile duct lumen and, as such, are ideally positioned to detect changes in bile flow, bile composition and bile osmolality. These sensory organelles act as cellular antennae that can detect and transmit signals that influence cholangiocyte function. Indeed, recent data show that cholangiocyte primary cilia can activate intracellular signaling pathways when they sense modifications in the flow, molecular constituents and osmolarity of bile. Their ability to sense and transmit signals depends on the participation of a growing number of specific ciliary-associated proteins that act as receptors, channels and transporters. Cholangiocyte cilia, in addition to being important in normal biliary physiology, likely contribute to the cholangiopathies when their normal structure or function is disturbed. Indeed, the polycystic liver diseases that occur in combination with autosomal dominant and recessive polycystic kidney disease (i.e. ADPKD and ARPKD) are two important examples of such conditions. Recent insights into the role of cholangiocyte cilia in cystic liver disease using in vitro and animal models have already resulted in clinical trials that have influenced the management of cystic liver disease.
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