B and T cells both recognize and help eliminate foreign molecules (antigens), such as those that are part of invading organisms, but they do so in different ways. B cells secrete antibodies, proteins that bind to antigens. Since antibodies circulate through the humours (i.e., body fluids), the protection afforded by B cells is called humoral immunity. T cells, in contrast, do not produce antibodies but instead directly attack invaders. Because this second type of acquired immunity depends on the direct involvement of cells rather than antibodies, it is called cell-mediated immunity. T cells recognize only infectious agents that have entered into cells of the body, whereas B cells and antibodies interact with invaders that remain outside the body’s cells. These two types of specific, acquired immunity, however, are not as distinct as might be inferred from this description, since T cells also play a major role in regulating the function of B cells. In many cases an immune response involves both humoral and cell-mediated assaults on the foreign substance. Furthermore, both classes of lymphocytes can activate or enhance a variety of nonspecific immune responses.
Lymphocytes are distinguished from other cells by their capacity to recognize foreign molecules. Recognition is accomplished by means of receptor molecules. A receptor molecule is a special protein whose shape is complementary to a portion of a foreign molecule. This complementarity of shape allows the receptor and the foreign molecule to conform to each other in a fashion roughly analogous to the way a key fits into a lock.
Receptor molecules are either attached to the surface of the lymphocyte or secreted into fluids of the body. B and T lymphocytes both have receptor molecules on their cell surfaces, but only B cells manufacture and secrete large numbers of unattached receptor molecules, called antibodies. Antibodies correspond in structure to the receptor molecules on the surface of the B cell.
Any foreign material—usually of a complex nature and often a protein—that binds specifically to a receptor molecule made by lymphocytes is called an antigen. Antigens include molecules found on invading microorganisms, such as viruses, bacteria, protozoans, and fungi, as well as molecules located on the surface of foreign substances, such as pollen, dust, or transplanted tissue. When an antigen binds to a receptor molecule, it may or may not evoke an immune response. Antigens that induce such a response are called immunogens. Thus, it can be said that all immunogens are antigens, but not all antigens are immunogens. For example, a simple chemical group that can combine with a lymphocyte receptor (i.e., is an antigen) but does not induce an immune response (i.e., is not an immunogen) is called a hapten. Although haptens cannot evoke an immune response by themselves, they can become immunogenic when joined to a larger, more complex molecule such as a protein, a feature that is useful in the study of immune responses.
Many antigens have a variety of distinct three-dimensional patterns on different areas of their surfaces. Each pattern is called an antigenic determinant, or epitope, and each epitope is capable of reacting with a different lymphocyte receptor. Complex antigens present an “antigenic mosaic” and can evoke responses from a variety of specific lymphocytes. Some antigenic determinants are better than others at effecting an immune response, presumably because a greater number of responsive lymphocytes are present. It is possible for two or more different substances to have an epitope in common. In these cases, immune components induced by one antigen are able to react with all other antigens carrying the same epitope. Such antigens are known as cross-reacting antigens.
T cells and B cells differ in the form of the antigen they recognize, and this affects which antigens they can detect. B cells bind to antigen on invaders that are found in circulation outside the cells of the body, while T cells detect only invaders that have somehow entered the cells of the body. Thus foreign materials that have been ingested by cells of the body or microorganisms such as viruses that penetrate cells and multiply within them are out of reach of antibodies but can be eliminated by T cells.
The specific immune system (in other words, the sum total of all the lymphocytes) can recognize virtually any complex molecule that nature or science has devised. This remarkable ability results from the trillions of different antigen receptors that are produced by the B and T lymphocytes. Each lymphocyte produces its own specific receptor, which is structurally organized so that it responds to a different antigen. After a cell encounters an antigen that it recognizes, it is stimulated to multiply, and the population of lymphocytes bearing that particular receptor increases.
How is it that the body has such an incredible diversity of receptors that are always ready to respond to invading molecules? To understand this, a quick review of genes and proteins will be helpful. Antigen receptor molecules are proteins, which are composed of a few polypeptide chains (i.e., chains of amino acids linked together by chemical bonds known as peptide bonds). The sequence in which the amino acids are assembled to form a particular polypeptide chain is specified by a discrete region of DNA, called a gene. But if every polypeptide region of every antigen receptor were encoded by a different gene, the human genome (all the genetic information encoded in the DNA that is carried on the chromosomes of cells) would need to devote trillions of genes to code just for these immune system proteins. Since the entire human genome contains approximately 25,000 genes, individuals cannot inherit a gene for each particular antigen receptor component. Instead, a mechanism exists that generates an enormous variety of receptors from a limited number of genes.
What is inherited is a pool of gene segments for each type of polypeptide chain. As each lymphocyte matures, these gene segments are pieced together to form one gene for each polypeptide that makes up a specific antigen receptor. This rearrangement of alternative gene segments occurs predominantly, though not entirely, at random, so that an enormous number of combinations can result. Additional diversity is generated from the imprecise recombination of gene segments—a process called junctional diversification—through which the ends of the gene segments can be shortened or lengthened. The genetic rearrangement takes place at the stage when the lymphocytes generated from stem cells first become functional, so that each mature lymphocyte is able to make only one type of receptor. Thus, from a pool of only hundreds of genes, an unlimited variety of diverse antigen receptors can be created.
Still other mechanisms contribute to receptor diversity. Superimposed on the mechanism outlined in simplified terms above is another process, called somatic mutation. Mutation is the spontaneous occurrence of small changes in the DNA during the process of cell division. It is called somatic when it takes place in body cells (Greek soma means “body”) rather than in germ-line cells (eggs and sperm). Although somatic mutation can be a chance event in any body cell, it occurs regularly in the DNA that codes for antigen receptors in lymphocytes. Thus, when a lymphocyte is stimulated by an antigen to divide, new variants of its antigen receptor can be present on its descendant cells, and some of these variants may provide an even better fit for the antigen that was responsible for the original stimulation.
The antigen receptors on B lymphocytes are identical to the binding sites of antibodies that these lymphocytes manufacture once stimulated, except that the receptor molecules have an extra tail that penetrates the cell membrane and anchors them to the cell surface. Thus, a description of the structure and properties of antibodies, which are well studied, will suffice for both.