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Lymphocytes are mononuclear leukocytes that mediate both humoural or antibody-mediated immunity and cell-mediated immunity. B cells, T cells and natural killer (NK) cells are the main types of lymphocytes that make up the immune system (particularly the adaptive or specific immunity). The lymphocytes which can also be known as lymphoid cells (i.e., the B cells and T cells) are the major cells of the entire immune system. They are mainly responsible for the key attributes of the adaptive or specific immunity such as discrimination between self-molecules and non-self molecules or antigens, specificity, diversity and immunological memory amongst other characteristics that the specific immune system is known for. While “B” lymphocytes derive their name from their site of maturation (i.e., the Bursa of Fabricius in birds and bone marrow in mammals/humans), the “T” cells also derive their own name from their site of maturation; and in this case the thymus. T cells are derived from the thymus.

B cells can recognize soluble or free antigens through their B cell receptors (BCRs) unlike T cells whose T cell receptors (TCRs) cannot recognize free antigens except for those antigens that have been bound, processed and presented by one of the MHC molecules (e.g., Class I MHC or Class II MHC molecules). Class I MHC molecules present antigenic peptide molecules to cytotoxic T cells (TC cells) which expresses CD8 receptors/membrane molecules while Class II MHC molecules present antigenic peptide molecules to helper T cells (TH cells) which expresses CD4 membrane molecules. And aside the TC cells or CD8+ cells and TH cells or CD4+, other subpopulations of T lymphocytes with unique immunological functions also exist. B cells are lymphocytes whose most important function in the immune system is to secrete antibody-producing plasma cells following their specific interaction with antigens or a foreign body. B cells primarily mature in the bone marrow. B lymphocytes or cells also differentiate into memory B cells that remain quiescent and parade the body for a second appearance of similar antigen. B cells are the main mediators of humoural or antibody-mediated immunity (AMI).           

T cells on the other hand, are lymphocytes that mature mainly in the thymus after production in the bone marrow. They express T cell receptors (TCRs) for the recognition of antigenic peptide molecules displayed by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules. T cells are the main mediators of cell-mediated immunity (CMI). T cells or lymphocytes undergo differentiation after activation into effector cells. These effector cells include T helper (CD4+) cells and T cytotoxic (CD8+) cells amongst other T cell subpopulations. CD8+ cells are mainly responsible for killing tumor cells, virus-infected cells, transplant cells, and parasites. They also down-regulate the immune system as well as recognize peptide molecules displayed by Class I MHC molecules. CD4+ T cells recognize and process peptide molecules displayed by Class II MHC molecules; and they secrete immunological molecules that help to stimulate other components of the immune system.     


Phagocytes are generally known as bacteria-eating cells. They engulf microbial cells (particularly pathogenic bacteria and other antigens) through a process known as phagocytosis, and this leads to the degradation of the engulfed pathogenic bacteria or antigens. Macrophages, neutrophils and eosinophils are examples of phagocytic cells. The process of phagocytosis can be facilitated when opsonins are deposited on the surfaces of the invading pathogenic bacteria. This makes the pathogenic bacteria to be easily phagocytosed by phagocytic cells. 


Macrophages are multi-functional immune system cells that have a variety of immunological functions. For example, macrophages act as antigen presenting cells and they also process antigens and make them readily available for phagocytosis. Macrophages mediate phagocytosis and they also secrete cytokines as well as mediate antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity (ADCC). Macrophages are found in various tissues of the body where they express a variety of immunological functions especially phagocytosis. Kupffer cells and histiocytes are macrophage-like cells found in the liver and connective tissues respectively. In the lungs and kidneys, alveolar macrophages and mesangial cells respectively,are the macrophage-like cells that provide immunological functions. Microglial cells and osteoclasts are the macrophage-like cells that are found in the brain and bone respectively.           


Dendritic cells (DC) are cells of the immune system that mainly act as antigen presenting cells (APCs). They comprise langerhans cells found underneath the skin. Dendritic cells play critical roles in both innate immune response and adaptive immune response. Dendritic cells are found in the blood, spleen, lymph nodes and thymus. They are professional APCs like the macrophages. Dendritic cells basically process and present antigenic peptide molecules to T helper (CD4+) cells because they express receptors for Class II MHC molecules.


Memory B cells are unique class of B cells that remain inert but viable in the blood circulation for a long period of time. They are capable of rapid activation upon the encounter of a previously invading pathogen or antigen in the body. Memory B cells play critical role in secondary immune response. And each time the immune system is exposed to a particular antigen and it produces effector B cells and T cells to counter the debilitating effect of the invading pathogen, the immune system also produces several memory B cells and T cells which police the entire blood circulation in search of similar antigens that invades the body in the future. These memory B cells and T cells mount a rapid secondary immunological response that activates and mobilizes other components of the immune system into action. In this second attack of the pathogen or antigen, the immune response is more rapid and precise than in the first attack – in which memory B cells was not readily available to mount a quick immunological response against the invading pathogen.      


Plasma cells are antibody-secreting cells produced by immunocompetent B cells. Antibodies are produced by plasma cells. They are short-lived in the blood circulation. However, plasma cells produces large amount of specific antibodies during their short lifespan. During their short lifespan, plasma cells secrete large amount of immunoglobulins or antibodies that are specific for each of the antigenic determinant sites or epitopes of antigens and/or pathogens that invades the body. 


Granulocytes are a type of white blood cells (WBCs) or leukocytes that contain granules in their cytoplasm. Examples of granulocytes include basophils, neutrophils and eosinophils. Granulocytes are different from non-granular leukocytes (e.g., monocytes and lymphocytes) which do not contain granules in their cytoplasm. The granulocytes are produced in the bone marrow. Granulocytes specifically fight invading pathogens or antigens in the body.


Megakaryocytes are multi-nucleated large cells that are produced in the bone marrow with the sole biological function of producing platelets or thrombocytes. Platelets are blood-clotting factors.


Basophils are granulated WBCs or leukocytes. They usually contain vasoactive substances such as histamine produced during allergic reactions in the body. Basophils also contain heparin, an anticoagulant. They are mainly present in the blood circulation where they initiate inflammatory reactions following the body’s invasion by pathogens or antigens. Upon encountering an antigen, immunoglobulins (especially immunoglobulin E, IgE) through their FC region binds to or cross-links with the basophils; and this binding leads to the release of vasoactive substances or pro-inflammatory mediators (e.g., histamine) which results in hypersensitivity or allergic reaction in the body of the affected host. Basophils stain blue when stained with basic dyes; and this procedure aid in the identification of basophils in blood specimens in the laboratory.


Eosinophils are a type of granulocytes that can easily be stained with eosin, a red-crystalline dye. They have phagocytic properties; and unlike other types of granulocytes, the eosinophils can phagocytose or engulf bacteria through the process of phagocytosis. Eosinophils also play critical roles in mounting immunological response during parasitic or nematode infection. Eosinophils stain red when stained with eosin.


Neutrophils are a type of granulocytes which exhibit both phagocytic and inflammatory immunological response. They stain neutral or pale pink when stained with Wright’s stain. Neutrophils are also known as polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNs). They are generally known as bacteria-eating granulocytes. Neutrophils are bactericidal in action.


Null cells are immature B cells that have not encountered an antigen. They can also be called naïve B cells or lymphocytes. Generally, naïve or null cells are incompetent B cells because they have not encountered any antigen, and thus lack the ability to stimulate any reasonably immunological response at the moment.  


Monocytes are nucleated leukocytes that exhibit phagocytic action following the invasion of antigens or pathogenic bacteria into the body. They are found in the blood circulation of the body. 

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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