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Antigen is any substance or molecule that can trigger an immune response in an animal including humans. An antigen is basically anything that is foreign to the body and which can react specifically with an antibody. An understanding of the basic characteristics of antigens and/or pathogens that spark immunological responses in the body is vital for us to know how antigen-antibody reaction actually occurs. It also helps us to know what this complex reaction (i.e., antigen-antibody reaction) implies in clinical terms. Antigens consist of microorganisms such as pathogenic viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites or worms and helminthes. They may also include proteins, glycolipids, polysaccharides, and harmful chemicals, substances or molecules released by any of these pathogens, and which the immune system of the host organism(s) considers to be non-self molecules. In transplantation immunology where graft or organs are being transplanted from one host to another, the recipient immune system (especially in the case of non-identical twins) can sometime see the transplanted tissues or cells as antigens because they may contain some markers which the non-self receiver’s immunological makeup sees as ‘non-self’ molecules. However, not all foreign molecules that enter the body are capable of sparking up an immunological response that leads to antibody production.


Antigens that induce the production of antibodies by the immune system are generally called immunogens. All immunogenic substances are always antigenic because they are able to react and be recognized by a specific antibody. However, some antigens (especially those with low molecular weight) are not immunogenic in nature even though they may exhibit some features of an antigen and are said to be antigenic. Substances with low molecular weight and which are not immunogenic by themselves but can become immunogenic when coupled to a carrier molecule such as a protein (which is immunogenic) are generally called haptens.Drugscan sometimes become immunogens when they spark up allergic reactions in the host taking them. Many biologically and chemically important substances such as drugs, steroid hormones, and peptide hormones can also serve as haptens. Dinitrophenol (DNP), an organic compound is a typical example of a hapten. The phrases antigen and immunogens are often used interchangeably. Immunogenicity is the ability of a substance to elicit an immune response (both humoural and cell-mediated immunity), and this phenomenon is usually exhibited by immunogens. Antigenicity on the other hand, is the property of an antigen that allows it to react specifically with the product of the specific immune response (i.e., antibodies or receptors of T cells). Though related and often confused in immunological discussions, immunogenicity and antigenicity are two distinctive terms with varying immunological properties and functions as it relates to antigens. In immunological terms, antigens are generally referred to ‘substances that can react specifically with the antibody receptor of B cells or T cell receptor when complexed or joined with major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules.

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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