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Immune System

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Self and Nonself

The key to a healthy immune system is its remarkable ability to distinguish between the body’s own cells, recognized as “self,” and foreign cells, or “nonself.” The body’s immune defenses normally coexist peacefully with cells that carry distinctive “self” marker molecules. But when immune defenders encounter foreign cells or organisms carrying markers that say “nonself,” they quickly launch an attack.

Anything that can trigger this immune response is called an antigen. An antigen can be a microbe such as a virus, or a part of a microbe such as a molecule. Tissues or cells from another person (except an identical twin) also carry nonself markers and act as foreign antigens. This explains why tissue transplants may be rejected.

In abnormal situations, the immune system can mistake self for nonself and launch an attack against the body’s own cells or tissues. The result is called an autoimmune disease. Some forms of arthritis and diabetes are autoimmune diseases.

In other cases, the immune system responds to a seemingly harmless foreign substance such as ragweed pollen. The result is allergy, and this kind of antigen is called an allergen.

Antigens carry marker molecules that identify them as foreign.
Antigens carry marker molecules that identify them as foreign. View credit information

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Last Updated October 02, 2008