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The Immune System - Overview


We are surrounded by billions of bacteria and viruses. To many of them, a human being is like a walking smorgasbord, offering nearly limitless resources that they can use for energy and reproduction. Luckily for us, getting into the human body is not an easy task!

From the point of view of these tiny organisms, a human is a bit like a fortress. The skin is thick and very hard to penetrate. In addition, the skin also produces a variety of substances that are harmful to invaders. Openings such as the eyes, nose, and mouth are protected by fluids or sticky mucus that capture harmful attackers. The respiratory tract also has mechanical defenses in the form of cilia, tiny hairs that remove particles. Intruders that get as far as the stomach are up against a sea of stomach acid that kills most of them.

But in spite of our fantastic defenses, hostile invaders still manage to get through. Some enter along with our food, while others may sneak in via the nose. And, as we all know, many things can break through our skin. In everyday life we often receive cuts or scrapes, and every time this happens we face the risk of a full-scale invasion from bacteria or viruses. What is the magic, then, that keeps us healthy most of the time?

When we receive a cut, and when invaders enter the body, cells are destroyed. The dying cells trigger an automatic response called inflammation, which includes dilated blood vessels and increased blood flow. An inflammation is the body's equivalent to a burglar alarm. Once it goes off, it draws defensive cells to the damaged area in great numbers. Increased blood flow helps defensive cells reach the place where they're needed. It also accounts for the redness and swelling that occur.


Immune Cells: The Defense

 The defensive cells are more commonly known as immune cells. They are part of a highly effective defense force called the immune system. The cells of the immune system work together with different proteins to seek out and destroy anything foreign or dangerous that enters our body. It takes some time for the immune cells to be activated - but once they're operating at full strength, there are very few hostile organisms that stand a chance.

Immune cells are white blood cells produced in huge quantities in the bone marrow. There are a wide variety of immune cells, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Some seek out and devour invading organisms, while others destroy infected or mutated body cells. Yet another type has the ability to release special proteins called antibodies that mark intruders for destruction by other cells.

illustrationBut the really cool thing about the immune system is that it has the ability to "remember" enemies that it has fought in the past. If the immune system detects a "registered" invader, it will strike much more quickly and more fiercely against it. As a result, an invader that tries to attack the body a second time will most likely be wiped out before there are any symptoms of disease. When this happens, we say that the body has become immune.


Bacteria and Viruses: Our Main Enemies

A virus needs a host cell to reproduce.


Now that you know a bit about our defenses, let's take a closer look at our primary enemies. Bacteria and viruses are the organisms most often responsible for attacking our bodies.

Most bacteria are free living, while others live in or on other organisms, including humans. Unfortunately, many bacteria that have human hosts produce toxins (poisons) that damage the body. Not all bacteria are harmful, though. Some are neutral and many are even desirable as they fulfill important functions in the body.

Bacteria are complete organisms that reproduce by cell division. Viruses, on the other hand, cannot reproduce on their own. They need a host cell. They hijack body cells of humans or other species, and trick them into producing new viruses that can then invade other cells. Frequently, the host cell is destroyed during the process.


Pathogens and Antigens

 In daily life we might speak of viruses, bacteria, and toxins. However, when reading about the immune system you’ll often come across the words antigen and pathogen. An antigen is a foreign substance that triggers a reaction from the immune system. Antigens are often found on the surfaces of bacteria and viruses. A pathogen is a microscopic organism that causes sickness. Hostile bacteria and viruses are examples of pathogens.


First published 8 November 2004

The Nobel Laureates in Medicine, 1908 »
An introduction to the various parts of the immune system »
The story of Ilya Mechnikov and Paul Ehrlich - the founding fathers of immune research »
Immune System Defender -
Help General Macrophage to clear the body from bacteria »
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