blood groups, differentiation of blood by type, classified according to immunological (antigenic) properties, which are determined by specific substances on the surface of red blood cells. Blood groups are genetically determined and each is characterized by the presence of a specific complex carbohydrate. About 200 different blood group substances have been identified and placed within 19 known blood group systems. The most commonly encountered blood group system is the ABO, or Landsteiner, system. Individuals may contain the A, B, or both A and B antigenic substances, or else lack these substances (type O). In the ABO system an individual who lacks one or more of these antigens will spontaneously develop the corresponding antibodies (agglutinins) shortly after birth. Thus a person with A type blood will naturally produce anti-B agglutinins, a person with B blood will produce anti-A agglutinins, and a person with O blood will produce anti-A and anti-B agglutinins; but a person with AB blood will not produce any agglutinins in this blood group system. Since these agglutinins are always present in the blood, in blood transfusion the donor blood must be compatible with the recipient's blood, i.e., the donor's blood must not contain antigen corresponding to the recipient's antibody. Other blood group systems, such as the MNSs, Lewis, Lutheran, and P systems, are not as important in transfusion because they act like true antigen-antibody systems, i.e., antibodies do not appear in blood plasma until the individual has been immunized by exposure to the other blood group antigens as in previous transfusions. In general, blood group substances are weak antigens, and antibody formation after transfusion occurs less than 3% of the time. Immunization can occur by pregnancy as well as by transfusion. Thus, in the Rh factor blood group system, an Rh-negative mother carrying an Rh-positive fetus produces anti-Rh antibodies against fetal red blood cells that cross the placenta. Since blood type is a genetic trait that is easy to test and the blood type of an individual is related to his or her parent's blood types by the laws of Mendelism (see under Mendel, Gregor), blood group typing is used legally to establish paternity. Anthropologists use the frequency of occurrence of various blood groups as tools to study racial or tribal origins.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.