Antibodies (also known as immunoglobulins, abbreviated Ig) are gamma globulin proteins that are found in blood or other bodily fluids of vertebrates, and are used by the immune system to identify and neutralize foreign objects, such as bacteria and viruses. They are typically made of basic structural units - each with two large heavy chains and two small light chains - to form, for example, monomers with one unit, dimers with two units or pentamers with five units. Antibodies are produced by a kind of white blood cell called a B cell. There are several different types of antibody heavy chains, and several different kinds of antibodies, which are grouped into different isotypes based on which heavy chain they possess. Five different antibody isotypes are known in mammals, which perform different roles, and help direct the appropriate immune response for each different type of foreign object they encounter.
Although the general structure of all antibodies is very similar, a small region at the tip of the protein is extremely variable, allowing millions of antibodies with slightly different tip structures to exist. This region is known as the hypervariable region. Each of these variants can bind to a different target, known as an antigen. This huge diversity of antibodies allows the immune system to recognize an equally wide diversity of antigens. The unique part of the antigen recognized by an antibody is called an epitope. These epitopes bind with their antibody in a highly specific interaction, called induced fit, that allows antibodies to identify and bind only their unique antigen in the midst of the millions of different molecules that make up an organism. Recognition of an antigen by an antibody tags it for attack by other parts of the immune system. Antibodies can also neutralize targets directly by, for example, binding to a part of a pathogen that it needs to cause an infection.
The large and diverse population of antibodies is generated by random combinations of a set of gene segments that encode different antigen binding sites (or paratopes), followed by random mutations in this area of the antibody gene, which create further diversity. Antibody genes also re-organize in a process called class switching that changes the base of the heavy chain to another, creating a different isotype of the antibody that retains the antigen specific variable region. This allows a single antibody to be used by several different parts of the immune system. Production of antibodies is the main function of the humoral immune system.
Soluble antibodies that are secreted from an activated B cell (in its plasma cell form) bind to foreign substances and signal for their destruction by the rest of the immune system. They may also be called free antibodies (until they bind an antigen and become part of an immune complex) or secreted antibodies.
The membrane-bound form of an antibody may be called a surface immunoglobulin (sIg) or a membrane immunoglobulin (mIg). It is part of the B cell receptor (BCR), which allows a B cell to detect when a specific antigen is present in the body and triggers B cell activation. The BCR is composed of surface-bound IgD or IgM antibodies and associated Ig-α and Ig-β heterodimers, which are capable of signal transduction. A typical human B cell will have 50,000 to 100,000 antibodies bound to its surface. Upon antigen binding, they cluster in large patches, which can exceed 1 micrometer in diameter, on lipid rafts that isolate the BCRs from most other cell signaling receptors. These patches may improve the efficiency of the cellular immune response. In humans, the cell surface is bare around the B cell receptors for several thousand Ångstroms, which further isolates the BCRs from competing influences.
|IgA||2||Found in mucosal areas, such as the gut, respiratory tract and urogenital tract, and prevents colonization by pathogens. Also found in saliva, tears, and breast milk.|
|IgD||1||>-||IgE||1||Binds to allergens and triggers histamine release from mast cells and basophils, and is involved in allergy. Also protects against parasitic worms.|
|IgG||4||In its four forms, provides the majority of antibody-based immunity against invading pathogens. The only antibody capable of crossing the placenta to give passive immunity to fetus.|
|IgM||1||Expressed on the surface of B cells and in a secreted form with very high avidity. Eliminates pathogens in the early stages of B cell mediated (humoral) immunity before there is sufficient IgG.|
The antibody isotype of a B cell changes during cell development and activation. Immature B cells, which have never been exposed to an antigen, are known as naïve B cells and express only the IgM isotype in a cell surface bound form. B cells begin to express both IgM and IgD when they reach maturity - the co-expression of both these immunoglobulin isotypes renders the B cell 'mature' and ready to respond to antigen. B cell activation follows engagement of the cell bound antibody molecule with an antigen, causing the cell to divide and differentiate into an antibody producing cell called a plasma cell. In this activated form, the B cell starts to produce antibody in a secreted form rather than a membrane-bound form. Some daughter cells of the activated B cells undergo isotype switching, a mechanism that causes the production of antibodies to change from IgM or IgD to the other antibody isotypes, IgE, IgA or IgG, that have defined roles in the immune system.
Antibodies are heavy (~150kDa) globular plasma proteins that are also known as immunoglobulins. They have sugar chains added to some of their amino acid residues. In other words, antibodies are glycoproteins. The basic functional unit of each antibody is an immunoglobulin (Ig) monomer (containing only one Ig unit); secreted antibodies can also be dimeric with two Ig units as with IgA, tetrameric with four Ig units like teleost fish IgM, or pentameric with five Ig units, like mammalian IgM.
The Ig monomer is a "Y"-shaped molecule that consists of four polypeptide chains; two identical heavy chains and two identical light chains connected by disulfide bonds. Each chain is composed of structural domains called Ig domains. These domains contain about 70-110 amino acids and are classified into different categories (for example, variable or IgV, and constant or IgC) according to their size and function. They have a characteristic immunoglobulin fold in which two beta sheets create a “sandwich” shape, held together by interactions between conserved cysteines and other charged amino acids.
Each heavy chain has two regions, the constant region and the variable region. The constant region is identical in all antibodies of the same isotype, but differs in antibodies of different isotypes. Heavy chains γ, α and δ have a constant region composed of three tandem (in a line) Ig domains, and a hinge region for added flexibility; heavy chains μ and ε have a constant region composed of four immunoglobulin domains. The variable region of the heavy chain differs in antibodies produced by different B cells, but is the same for all antibodies produced by a single B cell or B cell clone. The variable region of each heavy chain is approximately 110 amino acids long and is composed of a single Ig domain.
Some parts of an antibody have unique functions. The tips of the Y, for example, contain the site that bind antigen and, therefore, recognize specific foreign objects. This region of the antibody is called the Fab (fragment, antigen binding) region. It is composed of one constant and one variable domain from each heavy and light chain of the antibody. The paratope is shaped at the amino terminal end of the antibody monomer by the variable domains from the heavy and light chains.
The base of the Y plays a role in modulating immune cell activity. This region is called the Fc (Fragment, crystallizable) region, and is composed of two heavy chains that contribute two or three constant domains depending on the class of the antibody. By binding to specific proteins the Fc region ensures that each antibody generates an appropriate immune response for a given antigen. The Fc region also binds to various cell receptors, such as Fc receptors, and other immune molecules, such as complement proteins. By doing this, it mediates different physiological effects including opsonization, cell lysis, and degranulation of mast cells, basophils and eosinophils.
Those cells which recognize coated pathogens have Fc receptors which, as the name suggests, interacts with the Fc region of IgA, IgG, and IgE antibodies. The engagement of a particular antibody with the Fc receptor on a particular cell triggers an effector function of that cell; phagocytes will phagocytose, mast cells and neutrophils will degranulate, natural killer cells will release cytokines and cytotoxic molecules; that will ultimately result in destruction of the invading microbe. The Fc receptors are isotype-specific, which gives greater flexibility to the immune system, invoking only the appropriate immune mechanisms for distinct pathogens.
Somatic recombination of immunoglobulins, also known as V(D)J recombination, involves the generation of a unique immunoglobulin variable region. The variable region of each immunoglobulin heavy or light chain is encoded in several pieces - known as gene segments. These segments are called variable (V), diversity (D) and joining (J) segments. V, D and J segments are found in Ig heavy chains, but only V and J segments are found in Ig light chains. Multiple copies of the V, D and J gene segments exist, and are tandemly arranged in the genomes of mammals. In the bone marrow, each developing B cell will assemble an immunoglobulin variable region by randomly selecting and combining one V, one D and one J gene segment (or one V and one J segment in the light chain). As there are multiple copies of each type of gene segment, and different combinations of gene segments can be used to generate each immunoglobulin variable region, this process generates a huge number of antibodies, each with different paratope, and thus different antigen specificities.
After a B cell produces a functional immunoglobulin gene during V(D)J recombination, it cannot express any other variable region (a process known as allelic exclusion) thus each B cell can produce antibodies containing only one kind of variable chain.
Another mechanism that generates antibody diversity occurs in the mature B cell. Following activation with antigen, B cells begin to proliferate rapidly. In these rapidly dividing cells, the genes encoding the variable domains of the heavy and light chains undergo a high rate of point mutation, by a process called somatic hypermutation (SHM). SHM results in approximately one nucleotide change per variable gene, per cell division. As a consequence, any daughter B cells will acquire slight amino acid differences in the variable domains of their antibody chains.
Somatic hypermutation serves to increase the diversity of the antibody pool and impacts the antibody’s antigen-binding affinity. Some point mutations will result in the production of antibodies that have a weaker interaction (low affinity) with their antigen than the original antibody, and some mutations will generate antibodies with a stronger interaction (high affinity). B cells that express high affinity antibodies on their surface will receive a strong survival signal during interactions with other cells, whereas those with low affinity antibodies will not, and will die by apoptosis. Thus, B cells expressing antibodies with a higher affinity for the antigen will outcompete those with weaker affinities for function and survival. The process of generating antibodies with increased binding affinities is called affinity maturation. Affinity maturation occurs in mature B cells after V(D)J recombination, and is dependent on help from helper T cells.
Isotype or class switching is a biological process occurring after activation of the B cell, which allows the cell to produce different classes of antibody (IgA, IgE, or IgG). The different classes of antibody, and thus effector functions, are defined by the constant (C) regions of the immunoglobulin heavy chain. Initially, naïve B cells express only cell-surface IgM and IgD with identical antigen binding regions. Each isotype is adapted for a distinct function, therefore, after activation, an antibody with a IgG, IgA, or IgE effector function might be required to effectively eliminate an antigen. Class switching allows different daughter cells from the same activated B cell to produce antibodies of different isotypes. Only the constant region of the antibody heavy chain changes during class switching; the variable regions, and therefore antigen specificity, remain unchanged. Thus the progeny of a single B cell can produce antibodies, all specific for the same antigen, but with the ability to produce the effector function appropriate for each antigenic challenge. Class switching is triggered by cytokines; the isotype generated depends on which cytokines are present in the B cell environment.
Class switching occurs in the heavy chain gene locus by a mechanism called class switch recombination (CSR). This mechanism relies on conserved nucleotide motifs, called switch (S) regions, found in DNA upstream of each constant region gene (except in the δ-chain). The DNA strand is broken by the activity of a series of enzymes at two selected S-regions. The variable domain exon is rejoined through a process called non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) to the desired constant region (γ, α or ε). This process results in an immunoglobulin gene that encodes an antibody of a different isotype.
Specific antibodies are produced by injecting an antigen into a mammal, such as a mouse, rat or rabbit for small quantities of antibody, or goat, sheep, or horse for large quantities of antibody. Blood isolated from these animals contains polyclonal antibodies — multiple antibodies that bind to the same antigen — in the serum, which can now be called antiserum. Antigens are also injected into chickens for generation of polyclonal antibodies in egg yolk. To obtain antibody that is specific for a single epitope of an antigen, antibody-secreting lymphocytes are isolated from the animal and immortalized by fusing them with a cancer cell line. The fused cells are called hybridomas, and will continually grow and secrete antibody in culture. Single hybridoma cells are isolated by dilution cloning to generate cell clones that all produce the same antibody; these antibodies are called monoclonal antibodies. Generated polyclonal and monoclonal antibodies are often purified using Protein A/G or antigen-affinity chromatography.
In the 1920s, Michael Heidelberger and Oswald Avery observed that antigens could be precipitated by antibodies and went on to show that antibodies were made of protein. The biochemical properties of antigen-antibody binding interactions were examined in more detail in the late 1930s by John Marrack. The next major advance was in the 1940s, when Linus Pauling confirmed the lock-and-key theory proposed by Ehrlich by showing that the interactions between antibodies and antigens depended more on their shape than their chemical composition. In 1948, Astrid Fagreaus discovered that B cells, in the form of plasma cells, were responsible for generating antibodies.
Further work concentrated on characterizing the structures of the antibody proteins. A major advance in these structural studies was the discovery in the early 1960s by Gerald Edelman and Joseph Gally of the antibody light chain, and their realization that this protein was the same as the Bence-Jones protein described in 1845 by Henry Bence Jones. Edelman went on to discover that antibodies are composed of disulfide bond-linked heavy and light chains. Around the same time, antibody-binding (Fab) and antibody tail (Fc) regions of IgG were characterized by Rodney Porter. Together, these scientists deduced the structure and complete amino acid sequence of IgG, a feat for which they were jointly awarded the 1972 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. While most of these early studies focused on IgM and IgG, other immunoglobulin isotypes were identified in the 1960s: Thomas Tomasi discovered secretory antibody (IgA) and David Rowe and John Fahey identified IgD, and IgE was identified by Kikishige Ishizaka and Teruki Ishizaka as a class of antibodies involved in allergic reactions.
Genetic studies revealed the basis of the vast diversity of these antibody proteins when somatic recombination of immunoglobulin genes was identified by Susumu Tonegawa in 1976.