Many key components of innate immunity to infection are shared between Drosophila and humans. However, the fly Toll ligand Spaetzle is not thought to have a vertebrate equivalent. We have found that the structurally related cystine-knot protein, nerve growth factor β (NGFβ), plays an unexpected Spaetzle-like role in immunity to Staphylococcus aureus infection in chordates. Deleterious mutations of either human NGFβ or its high-affinity receptor tropomyosin-related kinase receptor A (TRKA) were associated with severe S. aureus infections. NGFβ was released by macrophages in response to S. aureus exoproteins through activation of the NOD-like receptors NLRP3 and NLRP4 and enhanced phagocytosis and superoxide-dependent killing, stimulated proinflammatory cytokine production, and promoted calcium-dependent neutrophil recruitment. TrkA knockdown in zebrafish increased susceptibility to S. aureus infection, confirming an evolutionarily conserved role for NGFβ-TRKA signaling in pathogen-specific host immunity.