Diversity

■ Immunologic memory

■ Self/nonself recognition

The antigenic specificity of the immune system permits it to distinguish subtle differences among antigens. Antibodies can distinguish between two protein molecules that differ in only a single amino acid. The immune system is capable of generating tremendous diversity in its recognition molecules, allowing it to recognize billions of unique structures on foreign antigens. Once the immune system has recognized and responded to an antigen, it exhibits immunologic memory; that is, a second encounter with the same antigen induces a heightened state of immune reactivity. Because of this attribute, the immune system can confer life-long immunity to many infectious agents after an initial encounter. Finally, the immune system normally responds only to foreign antigens, indicating that it is capable of self/nonself recognition. The ability of the immune system to distinguish self from nonself and respond only to nonself molecules is essential, for, as described below, the outcome of an inappropriate response to self molecules can be fatal.

Adaptive immunity is not independent of innate immunity. The phagocytic cells crucial to nonspecific immune re sponses are intimately involved in activating the specific immune response. Conversely, various soluble factors produced by a specific immune response have been shown to augment the activity of these phagocytic cells. As an inflammatory response develops, for example, soluble mediators are produced that attract cells of the immune system. The immune response will, in turn, serve to regulate the intensity of the inflammatory response. Through the carefully regulated interplay of adaptive and innate immunity, the two systems work together to eliminate a foreign invader.

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