Three Important Characteristics to Adaptive Immunity

Image: Artistic drawing of cells.
In healthy, immune competent individuals, immune responses are not produced against "self"-components. In vertebrates, Major Histocompatibility Complexes (MHC) exist that allow for differentiation between self and non-self antigens. In humans it is called the Human Leukocyte Antigen System (HLA) and it is responsible for genetically encoding our cells for recognition by the Immune System as either self or non-self.

Nucleated cells express MHC Class I genes, whereas a subgroup of immune cells called antigen presenting cells (APCs) express MHC Class II genes. In a healthy cell, a MHC Class I molecule coupled with one of the cell’s peptides is expressed at the cell surface. This complex acts as a signal to circulating Natural Killer lymphocytes or cytotoxic T cells not to attack. However, if that cell is invaded by a pathogen, the MHC Class I molecule couples to a non-self peptide of the pathogen which then signals the cytotoxic lymphocytes to attack and destroy the cell. Tissue cells that undergo malignant transformation may also express peptides with the MHC Class I molecules that are no longer recognized as self; thus promoting the destruction of these cancerous cells.


This property refers to the ability of the immune system to recognize non-self antigens and respond in a specific manner to them, rather than responding in a random manner. Specificity is initiated by Antigen Presenting Cells such as activated T Cells, B Cells, macrophages, dendritic cells and thymic epithelial cells. The APCs express MHC Class II molecules at their surface, which are coupled to antigenic peptides. When this antigenic peptide is presented to a T cell, the T cell becomes activated and in turn helps stimulate B cells to proliferate and differentiate into Plasma Cells which make antibodies “specific” to that antigen only. When the body encounters the measles virus, for example, and responds to it, it does not respond against all other viruses.

Image: Response to one organism does not give protection against another unrelatedorganism.


The initial contact with a molecule eliciting an immune response (antigen) leaves an imprint of information. With the help of the activated T cell, B cells also produce memory cells with antigen-specific antibodies expressed on their surface as B cell Receptors. These memory cells live for a longer period of time and, on second contact with an antigen, can respond more robustly and more quickly to eliminate it. We rarely suffer twice from measles, mumps, etc. The first contact imprints "memory" so that the body repels the next invasion.

Vaccines are synthetic forms or processed natural antigens used to stimulate the production of antibodies. Every time that antigen invades the body, the body remembers (memory), and an appropriate and specific response is produced by the host immune cells and antibodies.

Image: Cells are imprinted with memory from previous contact with antigen (e.g. infectious agent)