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Each antigen binds to a specific antibody, much like a key that can open a specific lock

An antigen is a molecule (usually a protein) expressed by a bacterium or virus that is recognized by the adaptive immune system as foreign which can stimulate the production of antibodies and combine specifically with them.

Usually an antigen is a molecule, perhaps on the cell surface of a bacterium or virus.

Antigens are always 'foreign' and trigger an attack. The system is normally tolerant of its own molecules, which don't start an attack. Autoimmune diseases are caused when this safeguard fails.

When an antigen is introduced into the body it causes the production of antibodies. Antigens include bacteria, cells of transplanted organs, plant pollen and toxins.

Antigens stimulate the production of antibodies: they do not produce them directly.

Vaccines are examples of antigens in an immunogenic form, which are intentionally administered to a recipient to induce the memory function of the adaptive immune system towards antigens of the pathogen invading that recipient. Vaccines for the seasonal flu virus is a common example.

The first time that a new antigen comes into contact with the body the response of the immune system will be a complete immune response. During this first response, the antigen will cause antibodies to be made.

The next time the same antigen contacts the body, a full-scale immune response is not needed as the body already has a specific antibody available instantly for that antigen.

This means that the body can begin fighting an infection much sooner for illnesses it has encountered before, and takes more time to begin to fight an infection in new illnesses.

Vaccinations usually contain dead bacteria or antigen so the antibodies can familiarise themselves and kill it.

Terminology[change | change source]

  • Epitope – the distinct surface features of an antigen, its antigenic determinant. Antigenic molecules, normally "large" biological polymers, usually present surface features that can act as points of interaction for specific antibodies. Any such feature constitutes an epitope. Most antigens have the potential to be bound by multiple antibodies, each of which is specific to one of the antigen's epitopes. Using the "lock and key" metaphor, the antigen can be seen as a string of keys (epitopes) each of which matches a different lock (antibody). Different antibody idiotypes, each have distinctly formed complementarity-determining regions.
  • Allergen – A substance capable of causing an allergic reaction .The (detrimental) reaction may result after exposure via ingestion, inhalation, injection, or contact with skin.
  • Superantigen – A class of antigens that cause non-specific activation of T-cells, resulting in polyclonal T-cell activation and massive cytokine release.
  • Tolerogen – A substance that invokes a specific immune non-responsiveness due to its molecular form. If its molecular form is changed, a tolerogen can become an immunogen.
  • Immunoglobulin-binding protein – Proteins such as protein A, protein G, and protein L that are capable of binding to antibodies at positions outside of the antigen-binding site. While antigens are the "target" of antibodies, immunoglobulin-binding proteins "attack" antibodies.
  • T-dependent antigen – Antigens that require the assistance of T cells to induce the formation of specific antibodies.
  • T-independent antigen – Antigens that stimulate B cells directly.
  • Immunodominant antigens – Antigens that dominate (over all others from a pathogen) in their ability to produce an immune response. T cell responses typically are directed against a relatively few immunodominant epitopes, although in some cases (e.g., infection with the malaria pathogen Plasmodium spp.) it is dispersed over a relatively large number of parasite antigens.

Antigen-presenting cells present antigens in the form of peptides on histocompatibility molecules. The T cells selectively recognize the antigens; depending on the antigen and the type of the histocompatibility molecule, different types of T cells will be activated. For T-cell receptor (TCR) recognition, the peptide must be processed into small fragments inside the cell and presented by a major histocompatibility complex (MHC). The antigen cannot elicit the immune response without the help of an immunologic adjuvant. Similarly, the adjuvant component of vaccines plays an essential role in the activation of the innate immune system.

An immunogen is an antigen substance (or adduct) that is able to trigger a humoral (innate) or cell-mediated immune response. It first initiates an innate immune response, which then causes the activation of the adaptive immune response. An antigen binds the highly variable immunoreceptor products (B-cell receptor or T-cell receptor) once these have been generated. Immunogens are those antigens, termed immunogenic, capable of inducing an immune response.

At the molecular level, an antigen can be characterized by its ability to bind to an antibody's paratopes. Different antibodies have the potential to discriminate among specific epitopes present on the antigen surface. A hapten is a small molecule that changes the structure of an antigenic epitope. In order to induce an immune response, it needs to be attached to a large carrier molecule such as a protein (a complex of peptides). Antigens are usually carried by proteins and polysaccharides, and less frequently, lipids. This includes parts (coats, capsules, cell walls, flagella, fimbriae, and toxins) of bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms. Lipids and nucleic acids are antigenic only when combined with proteins and polysaccharides.[citation needed] Non-microbial non-self antigens can include pollen, egg white, and proteins from transplanted tissues and organs or on the surface of transfused blood cells.