The adaptive immune system evolved in early vertebrates and allows for a stronger immune response as well as immunological memory, where each pathogen is "remembered" by a signature antigen. The adaptive immune response is antigen-specific and requires the recognition of specific "non-self" antigens during a process called antigen presentation. Antigen specificity allows for the generation of responses that are tailored to specific pathogens or pathogen-infected cells. The ability to mount these tailored responses is maintained in the body by "memory cells". Should a pathogen infect the body more than once, these specific memory cells are used to quickly eliminate it.
There are several types of T cells. The most important are Killer T cells, Helper T cells, and γ T cells.
Killer T cells directly attack other cells carrying foreign or abnormal antigens on their surfaces by releasing cytotoxins and a protease (granulysin) to target cells to undergo apoptosis. T cell killing of host cells is particularly important in preventing the replication of viruses.
Helper T cells regulate both the innate and adaptive immune responses and help determine which immune responses the body makes to a particular pathogen. These cells have no cytotoxic activity and do not kill infected cells or clear pathogens directly. They instead control the immune response by directing other cells to perform these tasks.
γ T cells possess an alternative T cell receptor (TCR) and share the characteristics of helper T cells, cytotoxic T cells and NK cells. γ T cells straddle the border between innate and adaptive immunity. On one hand, γ T cells are a component of adaptive immunity as they rearrange TCR genes to produce receptor diversity and can also develop a memory phenotype. On the other hand, the various subsets are also part of the innate immune system, as restricted TCR or NK receptors may be used as pattern recognition receptors.
A B cell identifies pathogens when antibodies on its surface bind to a specific foreign antigen. An antibody is made up of two heavy chains and two light chains. The unique variable region allows an antibody to recognize its matching antigen. This antigen/antibody complex is taken up by the B cell and processed by proteolysis into peptides. The B cell then displays these antigenic peptides on its surface MHC class II molecules. This combination of MHC and antigen attracts a matching helper T cell, which releases lymphokines and activates the B cell. As the activated B cell then begins to divide, its offspring (plasma cells) secrete millions of copies of the antibody that recognizes this antigen.
When B cells and T cells are activated and begin to replicate, some of their offspring become long-lived memory cells. Throughout the lifetime of an animal, these memory cells remember each specific pathogen encountered and can mount a strong response if the pathogen is detected again. This is "adaptive" because it occurs during the lifetime of an individual as an adaptation to infection with that pathogen and prepares the immune system for future challenges. Immunological memory can be in the form of either passive short-term memory or active long-term memory.
Passive memory is especially important for newborn infants, which have no prior exposure to microbes and are particularly vulnerable to infection. During pregnancy, a particular type of antibody, called IgG, is transported from mother to baby directly across the placenta. Breast milk or colostrum also contains antibodies that are transferred to the gut of the infant and protect against bacterial infections until the newborn can synthesize its own antibodies. This is passive immunity because the fetus does not actually make any memory cells or antibodies—it only borrows them. In medicine, protective passive immunity can also be transferred artificially from one individual to another via antibody-rich serum.
Long-term active memory is acquired following infection by activation of B and T cells. Active immunity can also be generated artificially, through vaccination. The principle behind vaccination (also called immunization) is to introduce an antigen from a pathogen in order to stimulate the immune system and develop specific immunity against that particular pathogen without causing disease associated with that organism.