Immune system Animation

An immune system is a collection of mechanisms within an organism that protects against infection by identifying and killing pathogens. It detects pathogens ranging from viruses to parasitic worms and distinguishes them from the organism's normal cells and tissues. Detection is complicated as pathogens adapt and evolve new ways to successfully infect the host organism.

To survive this challenge, several mechanisms have evolved that recognize and neutralize pathogens. Even simple unicellular organisms such as bacteria possess enzyme systems that protect against viral infections. Other basic immune mechanisms evolved in ancient eukaryotes and remain in their modern descendants, such as plants, fish, reptiles, and insects. These mechanisms include antimicrobial peptides called defensins, pattern recognition receptors, and the complement system. More sophisticated mechanisms, however, developed relatively recently, with the evolution of vertebrates.The immune systems of vertebrates such as humans consist of many types of proteins, cells, organs, and tissues, which interact in an elaborate and dynamic network. As part of this more complex immune response, the vertebrate system adapts over time to recognize particular pathogens more efficiently. The adaptation process creates immunological memories and allows even more effective protection during future encounters with these pathogens. This process of acquired immunity is the basis of vaccination.

Disorders in the immune system can cause disease. Immunodeficiency diseases occur when the immune system is less active than normal, resulting in recurring and life-threatening infections. Immunodeficiency can either be the result of a genetic disease, such as severe combined immunodeficiency, or be produced by pharmaceuticals or an infection, such as the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) that is caused by the retrovirus HIV. In contrast, autoimmune diseases result from a hyperactive immune system attacking normal tissues as if they were foreign organisms. Common autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes mellitus type 1 and lupus erythematosus. These critical roles of immunology in health and disease are areas of intense scientific study.

Layered defense in immunity

The immune system protects organisms from infection with layered defenses of increasing specificity. Most simply, physical barriers prevent pathogens such as bacteria and viruses from entering the body. If a pathogen breaches these barriers, the innate immune system provides an immediate, but non-specific response. Innate immune systems are found in all plants and animals. However, if pathogens successfully evade the innate response, vertebrates possess a third layer of protection, the adaptive immune system. Here, the immune system adapts its response during an infection to improve its recognition of the pathogen. This improved response is then retained after the pathogen has been eliminated, in the form of an immunological memory, and allows the adaptive immune system to mount faster and stronger attacks each time this pathogen is encountered.

Surface barriers

Several barriers protect organisms from infection, including mechanical, chemical and biological barriers. The waxy cuticle of many leaves, the exoskeleton of insects, the shells and membranes of externally deposited eggs, and skin are examples of the mechanical barriers that are the first line of defense against infection.
However, as organisms cannot be completely sealed against their environments, other systems act to protect body openings such as the lungs, intestines, and the genitourinary tract. In the lungs, coughing and sneezing mechanically eject pathogens and other irritants from the respiratory tract. The flushing action of tears and urine also mechanically expels pathogens, while mucus secreted by the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract serves to trap and entangle microorganisms.

Chemical barriers also protect against infection. The skin and respiratory tract secrete antimicrobial peptides such as the β-defensins. Enzymes such as lysozyme and phospholipase A in saliva, tears, and breast milk are also antibacterials. Vaginal secretions serve as a chemical barrier following menarche, when they become slightly acidic, while semen contains defensins and zinc to kill pathogens. In the stomach, gastric acid and proteases serve as powerful chemical defenses against ingested pathogens.

Within the genitourinary and gastrointestinal tracts, commensal flora serve as biological barriers by competing with pathogenic bacteria for food and space and, in some cases, by changing the conditions in their environment, such as pH or available iron.This reduces the probability that pathogens will be able to reach sufficient numbers to cause illness. However, since most antibiotics non-specifically target bacteria and do not affect fungi, oral antibiotics can lead to an “overgrowth” of fungi and cause conditions such as a vaginal candidiasis (yeast infection). There is good evidence that re-introduction of probiotic flora, such as pure cultures of the lactobacilli normally found in yoghurt, helps restore a healthy balance of microbial populations in intestinal infections in children and encouraging preliminary data in studies on bacterial gastroenteritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, urinary tract infection and post-surgical infections.

Innate immunity

Microorganisms that successfully enter an organism will encounter the cells and mechanisms of the innate immune system. Innate immune defenses are non-specific, meaning these systems recognize and respond to pathogens in a generic way. This system does not confer long-lasting immunity against a pathogen. The innate immune system is the dominant system of host defense in most organisms

Humoral and chemical barriers


Inflammation is one of the first responses of the immune system to infection. The symptoms of inflammation are redness and swelling, which are caused by increased blood flow into a tissue. Inflammation is produced by eicosanoids and cytokines, which are released by injured or infected cells. Eicosanoids include prostaglandins that produce fever and the dilation of blood vessels associated with inflammation, and leukotrienes that attract certain white blood cells (leukocytes). Common cytokines include interleukins that are responsible for communication between white blood cells; chemokines that promote chemotaxis; and interferons that have anti-viral effects, such as shutting down protein synthesis in the host cell. Growth factors and cytotoxic factors may also be released. These cytokines and other chemicals recruit immune cells to the site of infection and promote healing of any damaged tissue following the removal of pathogens.

Complement system

he complement system is a biochemical cascade that attacks the surfaces of foreign cells. It contains over 20 different proteins and is named for its ability to “complement” the killing of pathogens by antibodies. Complement is the major humoral component of the innate immune response. Many species have complement systems, including non-mammals like plants, fish, and some invertebrates.

In humans, this response is activated by the binding of complement proteins to carbohydrates on the surfaces of microbes or by complement binding to antibodies that have attached to these microbes. This recognition signal triggers a rapid killing response. The speed of the response is a result of signal amplification that occurs following sequential proteolytic activation of complement molecules, which are also proteases. After complement proteins initially bind to the microbe, they activate their protease activity, which in turn activates other complement proteases, and so on. This produces a catalytic cascade that amplifies the initial signal by controlled positive feedback. The cascade results in the production of peptides that attract immune cells, increase vascular permeability, and opsonize (coat) the surface of a pathogen, marking it for destruction. This deposition of complement can also kill cells directly by disrupting their plasma membrane.

Adaptive immunity
The adaptive immune system evolved in early vertebrates and allows for a stronger immune response as well as immunological memory, where each pathogen is "remembered" by a signature antigen.The adaptive immune response is antigen-specific and requires the recognition of specific “non-self” antigens during a process called antigen presentation. Antigen specificity allows for the generation of responses that are tailored to specific pathogens or pathogen-infected cells. The ability to mount these tailored responses is maintained in the body by "memory cells". Should a pathogen infect the body more than once, these specific memory cells are used to quickly eliminate it.


The cells of the adaptive immune system are special types of leukocytes, called lymphocytes. B cells and T cells are the major types of lymphocytes and are derived from hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow.B cells are involved in the humoral immune response, whereas T cells are involved in cell-mediated immune response.

Association of a T cell with MHC class I or MHC class II, and antigen (in red)

Both B cells and T cells carry receptor molecules that recognize specific targets. T cells recognize a “non-self” target, such as a pathogen, only after antigens (small fragments of the pathogen) have been processed and presented in combination with a “self” receptor called a major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule. There are two major subtypes of T cells: the killer T cell and the helper T cell. Killer T cells only recognize antigens coupled to Class I MHC molecules, while helper T cells only recognize antigens coupled to Class II MHC molecules. These two mechanisms of antigen presentation reflect the different roles of the two types of T cell. A third, minor subtype are the γδ T cells that recognize intact antigens that are not bound to MHC receptors.

In contrast, the B cell antigen-specific receptor is an antibody molecule on the B cell surface, and recognizes whole pathogens without any need for antigen processing. Each lineage of B cell expresses a different antibody, so the complete set of B cell antigen receptors represent all the antibodies that the body can manufacture.

Killer T cells

Killer T cell are a sub-group of T cells that kill cells infected with viruses (and other pathogens), or are otherwise damaged or dysfunctional. As with B cells, each type of T cell recognises a different antigen. Killer T cells are activated when their T cell receptor (TCR) binds to this specific antigen in a complex with the MHC Class I receptor of another cell. Recognition of this MHC:antigen complex is aided by a co-receptor on the T cell, called CD8. The T cell then travels throughout the body in search of cells where the MHC I receptors bear this antigen. When an activated T cell contacts such cells, it releases cytotoxins that form pores in the target cell's plasma membrane, allowing ions, water and toxins to enter. This causes the target cell to undergo apoptosis. T cell killing of host cells is particularly important in preventing the replication of viruses. T cell activation is tightly controlled and generally requires a very strong MHC/antigen activation signal, or additional activation signals provided by "helper" T cells.

Helper T cells

Helper T cells regulate both the innate and adaptive immune responses and help determine which types of immune responses the body will make to a particular pathogen. These cells have no cytotoxic activity and do not kill infected cells or clear pathogens directly. They instead control the immune response by directing other cells to perform these tasks.

Helper T cells express T cell receptors (TCR) that recognize antigen bound to Class II MHC molecules. The MHC:antigen complex is also recognized by the helper cell's CD4 co-receptor, which recruits molecules inside the T cell (e.g. Lck) that are responsible for T cell's activation. Helper T cells have a weaker association with the MHC:antigen complex than observed for killer T cells, meaning many receptors (around 200–300) on the helper T cell must be bound by an MHC:antigen in order to activate the helper cell, while killer T cells can be activated by engagement of a single MHC:antigen molecule. Helper T cell activation also requires longer duration of engagement with an antigen-presenting cell. The activation of a resting helper T cell causes it to release cytokines that influence the activity of many cell types. Cytokine signals produced by helper T cells enhance the microbicidal function of macrophages and the activity of killer T cells. In addition, helper T cell activation causes an upregulation of molecules expressed on the T cell's surface, such as CD40 ligand (also called CD154), which provide extra stimulatory signals typically required to activate antibody-producing B cells.

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