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What is the Difference Between Antigens and Antibodies?

By R. Brown
Updated May 17, 2024
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Antigens and antibodies are essentially at war with each other inside most human bodies. Antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins, are Y-shaped molecules found in the blood that fight against foreign substances known as antigens. Antigens are proteins or polysaccharides of bacteria, chemical, or virus that attack the immune system. They can also cause allergic reactions due to dander, food, or pollen.

Generally, antigens can also be life-threatening in blood transfusions and organ transplants. For example, if a patient receives a blood transfusion and his or her body treats the new blood as a foreign substance, the antibodies can severely attack the immune system. With organ transplants, the tissue cells of the transplant could be rejected by the immune system. In both examples, this could lead to a major infection or even death.

Not all foreign antigens are environmental. For example, cancer cells are antigens that develop within the body. If the immune system fails to remove or destroy these cancer cells, they could multiply by millions and severely attack the immune system. Antigens and antibodies fight each other over the mere survival of the human body.

In response to these foreign substances, the immune system produces B cells, which are proteins that manufacture antibodies to attack the antigens. B cells are white blood cells found in the stem cells of bone marrow. They eventually develop into plasma cells, which produce the antibodies.

To attack the most common antigens found in the body, the Y-shaped molecules allow different antibodies to attach themselves to different antigens. The Y-shaped molecules lock onto an antigen key and then wrap themselves around the antigen until it is destroyed – antigens and antibodies are mortal enemies, in a sense.

At the ends of the Y-shaped molecules are amino acids. Amino acids are proteins that help the antibodies to recognize the presence of antigens. Each antibody is created to match most antigens. Antigens and antibodies are numerous in the body – the body’s immune system is able to record and destroy over a million different antigens.

There are five different classes of antibodies: IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG, IgM. IgA antibodies are usually found in mucus, saliva, and tears. IgD antibodies are found in the tissue lining of the belly and the chest, but it’s not exactly clear what their main function is. IgE antibodies release histamines against such foreign substances as pollen, food, hay fever, and asthma.

IgG antibodies are the most common and widespread antibody. They protect the immune system from major infections and diseases. Also, they move between cells and blood to protect organs and skin. IgM antibodies are the first antibodies that move against any type of bacterial, chemical, fungal, or viral attack.

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Discussion Comments

By Contentum — On Jan 24, 2014
@Realited – I believe that most of the illnesses are not curable with just the functions of the antibodies; sometimes they aren't enough to heal the problem. Like cancer it doesn't matter how many antibodies you throw at those kinds of cells -- there will not be a healing until modern medicine intervenes.
By Realited — On Jan 23, 2014
This would give rise to the question if there are so many different versions of antibodies within the human body, shouldn't there be fewer sick people? And what of all the different medications out there? Do they have a role to play in just how sick someone can become with all the different side effects that one encounters using an FDA approved drug? It makes one wonder if the natural way of healing and handling things might be a better alternative.
By Contentum — On Jan 23, 2014
@Grinderry – I don't think its that complex. It could be that they're all white blood cells just designed for different functions, as described in the article. There are certain ones that are found in mucus, saliva and tears so it might be safe to surmise that they are all white blood cells of different types that perform different tasks but still work towards keeping the human body free from foreign invasions from different bacteria and other infections.
By Grinderry — On Jan 22, 2014
So then going off of this article the IgG antibodies are the white blood cells that we were taught about in school, right?
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