Every day we are alive, humans encounter potentially harmful disease causing organisms, or “pathogens”, like bacteria or viruses. Yet most of us are still able to function properly and live life without constantly being sick. That’s because the human body requires a multilayered immune system to keep it running smoothly. The two main classes of the immune system are the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system, or “acquired immunity”. In this article, we’ll discuss the first line of defense: the innate immune system.
Self vs. Non-self: How does the body know?
In order to be effective, the immune system needs to be able to identify which particles are foreign, and which are a part of your body. Let’s define some terms before we jump in to how this works:
- Self refers to particles, such as proteins and other molecules, that are a part of, or made by, your body. They can be found circulating in your blood or attached to different tissues. Something that is self should not be targeted and destroyed by the immune system. The non-reactivity of the immune system to self particles is called tolerance.
- Non-self refers to particles that are not made by your body, and are recognized as potentially harmful. These are sometimes called foreign bodies. Non-self particles or bodies can be bacteria, viruses, parasites, pollen, dust, and toxic chemicals. The non-self particles and foreign bodies that are infectious or pathogenic, like bacteria, viruses, and parasites, make proteins called antigens that allow the human body to know that they intend to cause damage.
- Antigens are anything that causes an immune response. Antigens can be entire pathogens, like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, or smaller proteins that pathogens express. Antigens are like a name tag for each pathogen that announce the pathogens’ presence to your immune system. Some pathogens are general, whereas others are very specific. A general antigen would announce “I’m dangerous”, whereas a specific antigen would announce “I’m a bacteria that will cause an infection in your gastrointestinal tract” or “I’m the influenza virus”.
- Cytokines are molecules that are used for cell signaling, or cell-to-cell communication. Cytokines are similar to chemokines, wherein they can be used to communicate with neighboring or distant cells about initiating an immune response. Cytokines are also used to trigger cell trafficking, or movement, to a specific area of the body.
- Chemokines are a type of cytokines that are released by infected cells. Infected host cells release chemokines in order to initiate an immune response, and to warn neighboring cells of the threat.