antibody, protein produced by the immune system (see immunity) in response to the presence in the body of antigens: foreign proteins or polysaccharides such as bacteria, bacterial toxins, viruses, or other cells or proteins. Such antigens are capable of inflicting damage by chemically combining with natural substances in the body and disrupting the body's processes. The body contains hundreds of thousands of different white blood cells called B lymphocytes, each capable of producing one type of antibody and each bearing sites on its membrane that will bind with a specific antigen. When such a binding occurs, it triggers the B lymphocyte to reproduce itself, forming a clone that manufactures vast amounts of its antibody.
The antibody molecule is composed of four polypeptide chains (see peptide)—two identical light chains and two identical heavy chains—joined by disulfide bridges. The light chains have a variable portion that is different in each type of antibody and is the active portion of the molecule that binds with the specific antigen. Antibodies combine with some antigens, such as bacterial toxins, and neutralize their effect; they remove other substances from circulation in body fluids; they bind certain antigens together, a process known as agglutination; and they activate complement, blood serum proteins that cause the destruction of invading cells.
See also monoclonal antibody.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.