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42: The Immune System

The environment consists of numerous pathogens, which are agents, usually microorganisms, that cause diseases in their hosts. A host is the organism that is invaded and often harmed by a pathogen. Pathogens include bacteria, protists, fungi and other infectious organisms. We are constantly exposed to pathogens in food and water, on surfaces, and in the air. Mammalian immune systems evolved for protection from such pathogens; they are composed of an extremely diverse array of specialized cells and soluble molecules that coordinate a rapid and flexible defense system capable of providing protection from a majority of these disease agents.

  • 42.0: Prelude to the Immune System
    Components of the immune system constantly search the body for signs of pathogens. When pathogens are found, immune factors are mobilized to the site of an infection. The immune factors identify the nature of the pathogen, strengthen the corresponding cells and molecules to combat it efficiently, and then halt the immune response after the infection is cleared to avoid unnecessary host cell damage.
  • 42.1: Innate Immune Response
    The immune system comprises both innate and adaptive immune responses. Innate immunity occurs naturally because of genetic factors or physiology; it is not induced by infection or vaccination but works to reduce the workload for the adaptive immune response. Both the innate and adaptive levels of the immune response involve secreted proteins, receptor-mediated signaling, and intricate cell-to-cell communication.
  • 42.2: Adaptive Immune Response
    The adaptive, or acquired, immune response takes days or even weeks to become established—much longer than the innate response; however, adaptive immunity is more specific to pathogens and has memory. Adaptive immunity is an immunity that occurs after exposure to an antigen either from a pathogen or a vaccination. This part of the immune system is activated when the innate immune response is insufficient to control an infection.
  • 42.3: Antibodies
    An antibody, also known as an immunoglobulin (Ig), is a protein that is produced by plasma cells after stimulation by an antigen. Antibodies are the functional basis of humoral immunity. Antibodies occur in the blood, in gastric and mucus secretions, and in breast milk. Antibodies in these bodily fluids can bind pathogens and mark them for destruction by phagocytes before they can infect cells.
  • 42.4: Disruptions in the Immune System
    A functioning immune system is essential for survival, but even the sophisticated cellular and molecular defenses of the mammalian immune response can be defeated by pathogens at virtually every step. In the competition between immune protection and pathogen evasion, pathogens have the advantage of more rapid evolution because of their shorter generation time and other characteristics.


  • Connie Rye (East Mississippi Community College), Robert Wise (University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh), Vladimir Jurukovski (Suffolk County Community College), Jean DeSaix (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Jung Choi (Georgia Institute of Technology), Yael Avissar (Rhode Island College) among other contributing authors. The OpenStax College name, OpenStax College logo, OpenStax College book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the creative commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University. For questions regarding this license, please contact Download for free at