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Lymphocytes in the Immune System: NK, T, and B Cells

Updated on August 12, 2019
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with a first class honors degree in biology. She often writes about the scientific basis of disease.

A B cell or B lymphocyte viewed with a scanning electron microscope (colorized photo)
A B cell or B lymphocyte viewed with a scanning electron microscope (colorized photo) | Source

Fighting Infections

Our bodies are constantly being exposed to infectious organisms, which enter the body through any opening that they encounter. Many of these invaders can make us sick. Fortunately, our immune system is constantly on guard to protect us. It can either prevent us from getting an infection or help us to recover from one.

The immune system produces white blood cells and chemicals that attack invaders. One type of white blood cell is the lymphocyte, which exists in three main forms—natural killer cells, T cells, and B cells. Lymphocytes work in different ways to fight disease. They play a vital role in keeping us healthy and in helping to save our lives when we develop a potentially serious infection.

Salmonella bacteria (the red rods) can cause infections; the scene is real, but the colors are false
Salmonella bacteria (the red rods) can cause infections; the scene is real, but the colors are false | Source

Our immune system consists of two major components: the innate system and the acquired system.

The Innate or Nonspecific Immune System

Humans are born with an innate or nonspecific immune system. Components of this system respond quickly to pathogens (microbes that cause disease) without having had previous exposure to them. In addition, the innate system attacks or inhibits many different pathogens regardless of their antigens. An “antigen” is a specific molecule on the surface of a cell or particle that triggers an attack by the acquired immune system.

The innate immune system consists of the following components:

  • physical barriers that prevent pathogen entry to the body, such as the skin and the lining of the digestive tract
  • secretions such as sweat, mucus in the nose, and hydrochloric acid in the stomach
  • seven kinds of cells, including natural killer cells, eosinophils, basophils, neutrophils, macrophages, mast cells, and dendritic cells
  • specific proteins

Natural killer cells are classified as lymphocytes and are therefore part of the discussion in this article. Lymphocytes, eosinophils, basophils, and neutrophils are classified as white blood cells, as shown in the illustration below. They are made in the red bone marrow. Macrophages are derived from a type of white blood cell known as a monocyte, which like other white blood cells is made in the red bone marrow. Mast cells and dendritic cells are derived from bone marrow cells.

The five types of white blood cells, or leukocytes, as they might appear after a biological stain has been added
The five types of white blood cells, or leukocytes, as they might appear after a biological stain has been added | Source

The Acquired or Specific Immune System

The acquired, adaptive, or specific immune system develops during our life as we are exposed to pathogens or after we receive vaccinations. The components of this system are more specialized than the components of the innate system. They also take longer to react to a pathogen and are antigen-specific.

The acquired system has a memory component, allowing the body to efficiently attack a pathogen when the body is exposed to the invader for a second or subsequent time after the initial exposure. T cells and B cells are part of the acquired immune system.

NK, T, and B cells are known as lymphocytes because they are found in lymph (as well as blood). The lymphatic system consists of vessels that collect excess fluid from the tissues and return it to the bloodstream. The system also fights invaders.

Natural Killer or NK Cells

Natural killer or NK cells are unusual lymphocytes because they contain noticeable granules. They are larger than B and T cells. NK cells attack cancer cells and those that are infected by a virus. Their activity involves a special kind of cell membrane protein called an MHC protein.

Unlike T cells, NK cell can attack cells and particles immediately without going through an activation process, which is why they are called “natural” killer cells.

MHC Proteins

All cells in our bodies that contain a nucleus also contain proteins in their cell membranes called MHC (Major Histocompatibility Complex) proteins. Everybody has a different set of MHC proteins. Natural killer cells use MHC proteins to distinguish “self” (cells that belong in the body) from “non-self” (cells that do not belong in the body). These identifying MHC proteins are classified as MHC Class One proteins.

Cells attach fragments of proteins that they have made to their membrane MHC molecules. Cancer cells and cells infected by a virus often have a low number of normal MHC proteins.

Natural Killer Cell Activity

Natural killer cells "recognize" the correct MHC proteins in a cell membrane by binding to them. The NK cells are inhibited and no attack occurs. If the NK cells are unable to find normal MHC proteins, or if these proteins are present at a very low level, the NK cells attack and destroy the abnormal cell. There are additional ways in which natural killer cells recognize some targets. Their behaviour is complex.

Helpful Destruction

During its attack, the NK cell first releases an enzyme called perforin, which creates a pore in the membrane of the infected cell. It then sends other enzymes called granzymes into the cell through the pore. These enzymes kill the infected cell via a process called apoptosis.

The animation above shows natural killer cells at work. In the last scene of the animation human NK cells are depicted killing sheep red blood cells. Natural killer cells in our bodies don't kill our own red blood cells, even though mature human red blood cells don't contain a nucleus and don't have surface MHC Class One proteins.

T Cells

Like all blood cells, T cells are created in the red bone marrow found inside certain bones. After they are made they migrate to the thymus gland in the chest to mature. The "T" in their name stands for thymus. Multiple types of T cells exist, including helper ones, cytotoxic ones, which are sometimes called killer T cells, regulatory ones, also known as suppressor T cells, and memory ones.

T cells are made in the red bone marrow but mature in the thymus gland.
T cells are made in the red bone marrow but mature in the thymus gland. | Source

Helping Other Lymphocytes

Helper T cells are unable to kill pathogens, but they stimulate other lymphocytes to do this job. Helper T cells are sometimes known as CD4+ cells because they have a protein known as CD4 on their cell membrane. Helper T cells are destroyed by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), the virus that causes AIDS.


Antigen-Presenting Cells

Helper T cells must be activated before they can carry out their function. The activation process requires the presence of other types of immune system cells, such as macrophages and dendritic cells. These cells are phagocytes—they surround pathogens and then engulf and digest them. The phagocytes display a fragment from the digested pathogen on their surface membrane attached to an MHC Class Two protein. The phagocytes are then known as antigen-presenting cells.

Helper T Cell Activation

A helper T cell is activated when the receptor on its surface joins with an antigen on a presenting cell. The receptor and antigen must match in order for a union to occur. The body has a large variety of helper T cells, resulting in many receptor variations that can join with many different antigens. The activated T cell produces proteins called cytokines which, in combination with other factors, trigger the activity of cytotoxic T cells and of B cells.

Immune System Components

Since macrophages and dendritic cells are part of the innate immune system, by becoming antigen-presenting cells and displaying the antigens to helper T cells they are providing a link between our innate immune system and our acquired system.

A mouse macrophage extending processes to  phagocytize particles.
A mouse macrophage extending processes to phagocytize particles. | Source


Like natural killer cells, cytotoxic T cells kill tumor cells and ones infected by viruses. Also like natural killer cells, they release perforin and granzymes into the infected cell. However, NK and cytotoxic T cells detect the infected cells in different ways. Cytotoxic T cells are part of the acquired immune system and attack infected cells when they detect specific viral or tumor antigens attached to MHC proteins on the cell membrane. Natural killer cells are part of the innate immune system and attack cells when they don’t find normal MHC proteins.

Regulation and Memory

Regulatory (or suppressor) T cells suppress the activity of the immune system after a pathogen has been destroyed. They help reduce the probability of an autoimmune reaction. In this type of reaction, the immune system attacks normal tissue in the body.

Memory T cells live for a long time. They are exposed to an antigen during an infection. During a subsequent infection with the same antigen, the T cells enable the immune system to attack the infection more rapidly than it did the first time.

An antibody and antigens
An antibody and antigens | Source

B Cells

Like other blood cells, B cells are made in the red bone marrow. They also mature here, which is the reason for their “B” designation. Mature B cells contain receptors on their cell membranes. Each receptor joins to a specific antigen on the surface of pathogens. Once the B cells have bound to the pathogens, they are activated and then divide to produce two types of cells—plasma cells and memory B cells.

Plasma cells are considered to be mature B cells. They are made in large numbers and produce proteins called antibodies. The antibodies join to the same antigen which was attached to the original B cell. Antibodies are also called immunoglobulins. Some antibodies coat pathogens, making it easier for phagocytes to engulf them. Others cause pathogens to stick together or immobilize motile pathogens. Certain antibodies can neutralize toxins.

Like memory T Cells, memory B cells live for a long time. They enable the acquired immune system to attack a pathogen more efficiently on the second and subsequent exposure to the pathogen.

A nutritious diet contains lots of vegetables and can boost the immune system.
A nutritious diet contains lots of vegetables and can boost the immune system. | Source

Maintaining a Healthy Immune System

We are bombarded by potentially dangerous pathogens ever day. The immune system does a wonderful job of protecting us. Occasionally it needs some help in the form of a medication, however.

Following a healthy lifestyle helps to maintain the efficiency of our immune system and reduces the need for medication. Eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and getting an adequate amount of sleep all help the system to function at its best. Using stress reduction techniques and being a non-smoker are also helpful.

The human immune system is very complex. Scientists are still learning more about how lymphocytes are activated and how they act. This research is extremely important because it has many medical applications. The knowledge that researchers gain will almost certainly improve our health and save lives.


  • NK cell facts from the British Society for Immunology
  • NK cells in health and disease from Science Direct
  • Information about B cells from the British Society for Immunology
  • Facts about T cells from the Encyclopedia Britannica

© 2010 Linda Crampton


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    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, FlourishAnyway. I appreciate your visit and votes!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      6 years ago from USA

      Well researched and a nice description. Thanks for educating us! Voted up and more.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Joanna. The normal level of lymphocytes varies, but in adults it's generally between 1000 and 4800 lymphocytes per microliter (or cubic millimeter) of blood.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      What should be level of Lymphocyte count in the human body?

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Mary. I appreciate the comment, the vote and the share very much!!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      You really did a lot of reseach on this Hub. As a former medical technologist, I found the Hub very interesting and informative.

      I voted this Hub up, etc. and will share.


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