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Adaptive immunity which can also be called acquired resistance to infection is an antigen-specific type of immunity that is an acquired ability of a host immune system to recognize and destroy specific pathogenic microbes, their products and other foreign bodies that invade the body. Acquired immunity is a specific type of immune response that is elicited based on the previous exposure of a host to a particular pathogenic microorganism or antigen. The adaptive (acquired) immunity response is usually two-fold viz: humoural response (antibody mediated) and cellular response (cell mediated). And both of these responses usually develop slowly, but their effect in the body as it regards to immunity against infection is long lasting. Humoural immune response and cell-mediated immunity are the two main divisions that comprise the adaptive immune response. Generally, the prime functions of the adaptive immune response is to recognize specific antigens or pathogenic microbes, develop a reaction or feedback to the epitope of the antigen recognized and finally, to establish an immunological memory of the encountered pathogen in order to stimulate a robust and rapid response against it in case it attacks the host the second time. Acquired immunity is the second line of defense against infection, and it normally swims into action when the mechanisms of the innate immunity fails or has finished its own immunological response.


The innate immune response on its own cannot sufficiently protect an individual against invading pathogenic microbes and foreign bodies; thus, it is the responsibility of the acquired immunity to enhance the general response of the immune system to microbial invasion particularly when the natural (innate) immunity is inundated by the antigenic attack (Table 1). Adaptive immunity also include the activation of some less specific components of the immune system such as the complements, macrophages, NK cells and complements which help to improve the general immunological response to an invading pathogen. B cells and T cells are the main components of the cells of the adaptive immune response. It is noteworthy that microbes in their ingenuity can mutate overtime to evade the attack of the innate immunity and its associated components.

However, the host body has evolved line of attack (i.e., the adaptive immunity) which it uses to dislodge specific immunogens or pathogens that invade the body no matter how transformed or mutated they may look to the innate immune mechanism. Following the entry of pathogenic microbes and/or foreign bodies into the body, the innate immunity and its associated components interacts with the antigens and they are further presented as peptide molecules on antigen-presenting cells (APCs) which are complexed by MHC molecules and finally presented to T lymphocytes for destruction. The production of antibodies by the B cells is also activated following the recognition of specific receptors on the MHC-antigen complex formed. Table 1. highlights some of the basic differences between natural (innate) immunity and the adaptive (specific) immunity.

Table 1. Some differences between innate (natural) immunity and adaptive (acquired) immunity

1.Response to antigens is non-specific.Response to antigens is specific.
2.It is found in nearly all forms of life.It is found only in jawed vertebrates.
3.Exposure to antigens leads to immediate immunological response.There is usually a time lag between exposure and response to antigens i.e., adaptive immunity takes time to develop.
4.Immunological memory is lacking in innate immunity.There is immunological memory in adaptive immunity.
5.It is mediated by certain anatomical and physiological components of the body.It involves a diversity of cells including B and T lymphocytes.
6.It is present in an individual from birth.It is developed following initial exposure to pathogens.
7.It does not exhibit immunological tolerance.Adaptive immunity exhibit immunological tolerance and memory. 


Acquired immunity is slow in response at first or initial exposure to foreign substance and invading microbes but very rapid in the second exposure or attack. The former is the primary response while the latter is secondary response. In primary immune response, an antigen or immunogen interacts specifically with components of the immune system such as antigen-specific B and T cells the first time. The innate immune response and other components of the immune system such as the cytokines and antibodies can also join forces with the primary response to initiate response to eliminate the invading microbe and/or foreign bodies that penetrated the body.

Secondary immune response is usually initiated when the same pathogen or a closely related immunogen that initially attacked the body resurfaced and is encountered by the host’s immune system the second time. In secondary immune response, the feedback of the immune attack against the invading pathogenic microbe is usually rapid than the first (i.e., in the primary response) because the host had developed a memory of the invading immunogen, thus immunizing the individual to present a robust and rapid attack when its immune system encounters a closely related pathogen again. It is noteworthy that an initial infection of a host with a particular pathogen initiates a state of memory or immunity which protects the individual against a possible second infection by the same or closely related microbe. This is the basis for the secondary immune response, which is a fundamental component of the adaptive (acquired) immune response and immunization.


The four (4) qualities of the adaptive (acquired) immunity and which clearly differentiates them from the innate immunity shall be highlighted in this section. These qualities are as follows:

  • Antigenic specificity: Adaptive immunity can clearly differentiate the differences that exist among immunogens i.e., it can tell apart between self molecules and non-self molecules. Adaptive immunity can generally differentiate between self-molecules and pathogens or antigens, except in cases of autoimmunity.
  • Antigenic diversity: Adaptive immunity can recognize the numerous epitopes (antigenic determinants) that are found on the surfaces of immunogens and pathogens.
  • Immunological memory: Adaptive immunity can store the information about the invading pathogenic microbe as memory in the first attack to show an enhanced response to a subsequent or second challenge by the same or a closely related microbe. Immunological memory allows adaptive immunity to confer a life-long protection or resistance to the host body against a wide variety of microbes after the first attack. This is the cornerstone for vaccination/immunization – a very important process in the medical sciences, and which has saved and is still saving untold number of lives across the world from infectious diseases.
  • Immunological tolerance: Adaptive immunity possesses the ability to avoid making an adaptive immune response towards host molecules known as ‘self-molecules’. This implies that the adaptive immune response is capable of recognizing and distinguishing between self and non-self molecules; thus tolerating self molecules as much as possible to avoid the development of a disease or an abnormality in the immune system of the host.

Further reading

William E.P (2003). Fundamental Immunology. 5th edition. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins Publishers, USA.

Stevens, Christine Dorresteyn (2010). Clinical immunology and serology. Third edition. F.A. Davis Company, Philadelphia.

Silverstein A.M (1999). The history of immunology. In Paul, WE (ed): Fundamental Immunology, 4th edition. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, Philadelphia, USA.

Paul W.E (2014). Fundamental Immunology. Seventh edition. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, USA.

Male D, Brostoff J, Roth D.B and Roitt I (2014). Immunology. Eight edition. Elsevier Saunders, USA.

Levinson W (2010). Review of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. Twelfth edition. The McGraw-Hill Companies, USA.

Berzofsky J.A and Berkower J.J (1999). Immunogenicity and antigen structure. In Fundamental Immunology, 4th edition., W.E. Paul, ed., Lippincott-Raven, Philadelphia. 

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