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B-cell activation and differentiation

B-cell activation and differentiation


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High Yield Notes
18 pages

B-cell activation and differentiation

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Content Reviewers:

Rishi Desai, MD, MPH

The immune response is highly specific for each invader, and that’s because the cells of the adaptive immune response have unique receptors that can differentiate friendly bacteria from potentially deadly pathogens from their unique parts - called antigens.

The key cells of the adaptive immune response are the lymphocytes - the B and T cells.

B cells develop in the bone marrow where they undergo a process called VDJ rearrangement to generate a massively diverse set of B cell receptors.

The B cell receptor is essentially an antibody except that it has a transmembrane part that goes through the membrane attaching the receptor to the surface of the B cell.

The B cell receptor, has two heavy chains and two light chains, and the region or fragment of the B cell receptor that binds the antigen is called the fragment-antigen binding or Fab region.

The Fab region is where the ends of the heavy and light chains meet, and there are two Fab fragments on each B cell receptor.

The remainder of the heavy chain makes up the constant region or constant fragment region, also called Fc.

The two heavy chains are linked to one another by disulfide bonds and each heavy chain is also linked to a light chain by a disulfide bond.

Each B cell receptor, has two identical heavy and light chains, resulting in two identical antigen binding sites.

As the B cell develops into a plasma cell, the B cell receptor gets secreted as an antibody with the exact same antigen specificity.

However, the heavy chain actually changes as the B cell develops.

There are 5 major types of heavy chains which encode the isotypes or classes of immunoglobulins: IgM, IgD, IgG, IgA, and IgE.

These five are encoded by heavy chain genes which are referred to by the greek letters mu, delta, gamma, alpha, and epsilon.

When a B cell is first developing it initially expresses the mu heavy chain, and as a result all of the B cell receptors are IgM’s that are on the cell surface.

When the B cell finishes developing it undergoes a process called alternative splicing.

Alternative splicing is a process by which the cell expresses the heavy chain exons for both mu and delta allowing for both IgM and IgD to be simultaneously expressed on the surface.

At this point the B cell is mature but still naive.

Having IgD on the B cell surface is a like a young adult with a driver’s license - they’re able to go out and explore the world - in the B cell’s case that means all of the body’s lymphatic system - but the cells haven’t been exposed to much and don’t know how they’ll react to foreign antigens.

Once the B cells start to explore the body’s lymphatic system they travel from lymph node to lymph node in search of antigens.

Lymph nodes are scattered throughout your body, and each one is a highly organized structure where millions of B cells, T cells, antigens, and antigen presenting cells pass through everyday - like a busy airport.

Now, both B cells and T cells, as well as antigens and antigen presenting cells, all need to enter the lymph node.

There are two ways to do this depending on if the cells are entering from the lymphatics or the blood.

If the cell is already in the lymph, then it can enter the lymph node through the afferent lymphatic vessel.

If the cell is in the blood, then it can use the high endothelial venules or HEVs.

HEVs are special endothelial cells found at postcapillary sites of lymphoid organs.

These endothelial cells are more plump than the average flat endothelial cell and they also express adhesion molecules like L-selectin.

When lymphocytes pass through the HEVs they can bind to and wiggle through the endothelial cells and slip right into the lymph node.

When B cells and T cells get into the lymph nodes, they first enter the paracortical region.

The T cells remain there, while the B cells migrate to the neighboring cortical region of the lymph node, where they form the primary lymphoid follicles.

If a B cell gets activated it starts replicating within a follicle, and it forms a germinal center.

And a follicle with a germinal center is called a secondary lymphoid follicle.

Various antigens enter the lymph node through the afferent lymphatic vessel, and they percolate through the paracortex and through to the follicle.

It looks a bit like a game of plinko where the antigens get to interact with lots of B cells in the follicle.

B cells, unlike T cells, can recognize a wide variety of antigens including peptides, carbohydrates, and lipids in their native form, meaning that they don’t require antigen presenting cells to process or present the antigen.

In order for the B cell to be activated the antigen must crosslink the B cell receptors.

When two B cell receptors get crosslinked, their intracellular chains, the side chains Ig alpha and Ig Beta, and CD19 all cluster together.


B cells are activated when they encounter an antigen that they recognize. The antigen binds to the B cell's surface receptors, which activates and triggers it to divide and differentiate into an antibody-secreting plasma cell. Plasma cells produce antibodies that bind to the antigen and neutralize it.

The differentiation process is controlled by various factors, including cytokines, lymphokines, and chemokines. Each of these molecules signals the B cells to differentiate into a certain type of plasma cell.