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11.63: B and T Cell Response

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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What happens when your body recognizes an invader?

When your immune system detects an invading pathogen, it goes on the attack! Notice how this T-cell is setting out to destroy a cancer cell.

B and T Cell Response

Some defenses, like your skin and mucous membranes, are not designed to ward off a specific pathogen. They are just general defenders against disease. Your body also has defenses that are more specialized. Through the help of your immune system, your body can generate an army of cells to kill that one specific pathogen.

There are two different types of specific immune responses. One type involves B cells. The other type involves T cells. Recall that B cells and T cells are types of white blood cells that are key in the immune response. Whereas the immune system's first and second line of defense are more generalized or non-specific, the immune response is specific. It can be described as a specific response to a specific pathogen, meaning it uses methods to target just one pathogen at a time. These methods involve B and T cells.

B Cell Response

B cells respond to pathogens and other cells from outside the body in the blood and lymph. Most B cells fight infections by making antibodies. An antibody is a large, Y-shaped protein that binds to an antigen, a protein that is recognized as foreign. Antigens are found on the outside of bacteria, viruses and other foreign microorganisms. Each antibody can bind with just one specific type of antigen (Figure below). They fit together like a lock and key. Once an antigen and antibody bind together, they signal for a phagocyte to destroy them. Phagocytes are white blood cells that engulf targeted antigens by phagocytosis. As the antigen is on the outside of a pathogen, the pathogen is destroyed by this process.

At any one time the average human body contains antibodies that can react with about 100,000,000 different antigens. This means that there can be 100,000,000 different antibody proteins in the body.

This diagram illustrates how an antibody binds to an antigen

This diagram shows how an antibody binds with an antigen. The antibody was produced by a B cell. It binds with just one type of antigen. Antibodies produced by different B cells bind with other types of antigens. The antigen-binding sites can vary, such that they are specific for just one antigen.

T Cell Response

There are different types of T cells, including killer T cells and helper T cells. Killer T cells destroy infected, damaged, or cancerous body cells (Figure below). When the killer T cell comes into contact with the infected cell, it releases poisons. The poisons make tiny holes in the cell membrane of the infected cell. This causes the cell to burst open. Both the infected cell and the pathogens inside it are destroyed.

A killer T cell recognizes a body cell infected with a virus and causes it to burst

In this diagram, a killer T cell recognizes a body cell infected with a virus. After the killer T cell makes contact with the infected cell, it releases poisons that cause the infected cell to burst. This kills both the infected cell and the viruses inside it.

Helper T cells do not destroy infected or damaged body cells. But they are still necessary for an immune response. They help by releasing chemicals that control other lymphocytes. The chemicals released by helper T cells “switch on” both B cells and killer T cells so they can recognize and fight specific pathogens.


  • B cells produce antibodies against pathogens in the blood and lymph.
  • Killer T cells destroy body cells infected with pathogens.

Explore More

  1. What starts an immune response?
  2. How do killer T cells fight pathogens?
  3. How do B cells fight pathogens?
  4. Explain how long-term immunity comes about.


  1. Explain how B cells help fight infections.
  2. Describe an antibody and its role.
  3. How do killer T cells fight pathogens?
  4. Describe the role of helper T cells.

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antibody Large, Y-shaped protein produced by B cells that recognizes and binds to a specific antigen.
antigen Protein that is recognized as foreign and causes an immune response.
B cell Type of white blood cell that fights infections by forming antibodies.
helper T cell Cell that releases chemicals that control the immune response.
killer T cell Cell that destroys infected, damaged, or cancerous body cells.
phagocyte Type of white blood cell that ingests and destroys pathogens and dead cells.
T cell Cells involved in the immune response in which cells infected with pathogens are destroyed.

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade
7 , 8
Date Created:
Nov 29, 2012
Last Modified:
Dec 02, 2016
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