Functions of B Lymphocytes

B lymphocytes secrete antibodies that can bind to antigens in a specific fashion.This bonding stimulates a cascade of reactions whereby a system of plasma proteins called complement is activated. Some of the activated complement proteins kill the cells containing the antigen; others promote phagocytosis, resulting in a more effective defense against pathogens.

Exposure of a B lymphocyte to the appropriate antigen results in cell growth followed by many cell divisions. Some of the progeny become memory cells; these are visually indistinguishable from the original cell and are important in active immunity. Others are transformed into plasma cells (fig. 15.7). Plasma cells are protein factories that produce about 2,000 antibody proteins per second.

The antibodies that are produced by plasma cells when B lymphocytes are exposed to a particular antigen react specifically with that antigen. Such antigens may be isolated molecules, as illustrated in figure 15.7, or they may be molecules at the surface of an invading foreign cell (fig. 15.8). The specific bonding of antibodies to antigens serves to identify the enemy and to activate defense mechanisms that lead to the invader's destruction.

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