Leukocytes (White Blood Cells)

The leukocytes, or white blood cells, defend the body against infecting organisms and foreign agents, both in the tissues and in the bloodstream itself (see immunity). Human blood contains about 5,000 to 10,000 leukocytes per cubic millimeter; the number increases in the presence of infection. An extraordinary and prolonged proliferation of leukocytes is known as leukemia. This overproduction suppresses the production of normal blood cells. Conversely, a sharp decrease in the number of leukocytes (leukopenia) strips the blood of its defense against infection and is an equally serious condition. A dramatic fall in levels of certain white blood cells occurs in persons with AIDS. Leukocytes as well as erythrocytes are formed from stem cells in the bone marrow. They have nuclei and are classified into two groups: granulocytes and agranulocytes.


The granulocytes form in the bone marrow and account for about 70% of all white blood cells. Granulocytes include three types of cells: neutrophils, eosinophils, and basophils. Neutrophils constitute the vast majority of granulocytes. They travel about by ameboid movement and can surround and destroy bacteria and other foreign particles. The eosinophils, ordinarily about 2% of the granulocyte count, increase in number in the presence of allergic disorders and parasitic infestations. The basophils account for about 1% of the granulocytes. They release chemicals such as histamine and play a role in the inflammatory response to infection.


The agranulocytes include the monocytes and the lymphocytes. Monocytes are derived from the phagocytic cells that line many vascular and lymph channels, called the reticuloendothelial system. Monocytes ordinarily number 4% to 8% of the white cells. They move to areas of infection, where they are transformed into macrophages, large phagocytic cells that trap and destroy organisms left behind by the granulocytes and lymphocytes. In certain diseases of long duration (tuberculosis, malaria, and typhoid) the monocytes act as the main instrument of defense.

Lymphocytes, under normal conditions, make up about 20% to 35% of all white cells, but proliferate rapidly in the face of infection. There are two basic types of lymphocytes: the B lymphocytes and the T lymphocytes. B lymphocytes tend to migrate into the connective tissue, where they develop into plasma cells that produce highly specific antibodies against foreign antigens. Other B lymphocytes act as memory cells, ready for subsequent infection by the same organism. Some T lymphocytes kill invading cells directly; others interact with other immune system cells, regulating the immune response.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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