The Granular Leukocytes

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A neutrophil has small granules that stain light lilac and a nucleus with two to five lobes. An eosinophil’s granules are slightly larger and stain reddish-orange, and its nucleus has two to three lobes. A basophil has large granules that stain dark blue to purple and a two-lobed nucleus.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

We will consider the granular leukocytes in order from most common to least common. All of these are produced in the red bone marrow and have a short lifespan of hours to days. They typically have a lobed nucleus and are classified according to which type of stain best highlights their granules.

The most common of all the leukocytes, neutrophils will normally comprise 50–70 percent of total leukocyte count. They are 10–12 µm in diameter, significantly larger than erythrocytes. They are called neutrophils because their granules show up most clearly with stains that are chemically neutral (neither acidic nor basic). The granules are numerous but quite fine and normally appear light lilac. The nucleus has a distinct lobed appearance and may have two to five lobes, the number increasing with the age of the cell. Older neutrophils have increasing numbers of lobes and are often referred to as polymorphonuclear (a nucleus with many forms), or simply “polys.” Younger and immature neutrophils begin to develop lobes and are known as “bands.”

Neutrophils are rapid responders to the site of infection and are efficient phagocytes with a preference for bacteria. Their granules include lysozyme, an enzyme capable of lysing, or breaking down, bacterial cell walls; oxidants such as hydrogen peroxide; and defensins, proteins that bind to and puncture bacterial and fungal plasma membranes, so that the cell contents leak out. Abnormally high counts of neutrophils indicate infection and/or inflammation, particularly triggered by bacteria, but are also found in burn patients and others experiencing unusual stress. A burn injury increases the proliferation of neutrophils in order to fight off infection that can result from the destruction of the barrier of the skin. Low counts may be caused by drug toxicity and other disorders, and may increase an individual’s susceptibility to infection.

Eosinophils typically represent 2–4 percent of total leukocyte count. They are also 10–12 µm in diameter. The granules of eosinophils stain best with an acidic stain known as eosin. The nucleus of the eosinophil will typically have two to three lobes and, if stained properly, the granules will have a distinct red to orange color.

The granules of eosinophils include antihistamine molecules, which counteract the activities of histamines, inflammatory chemicals produced by basophils and mast cells. Some eosinophil granules contain molecules toxic to parasitic worms, which can enter the body through the integument, or when an individual consumes raw or undercooked fish or meat. Eosinophils are also capable of phagocytosis and are particularly effective when antibodies bind to the target and form an antigen-antibody complex. High counts of eosinophils are typical of patients experiencing allergies, parasitic worm infestations, and some autoimmune diseases. Low counts may be due to drug toxicity and stress.

Basophils are the least common leukocytes, typically comprising less than one percent of the total leukocyte count. They are slightly smaller than neutrophils and eosinophils at 8–10 µm in diameter. The granules of basophils stain best with basic (alkaline) stains. Basophils contain large granules that pick up a dark blue stain and are so common they may make it difficult to see the two-lobed nucleus.

In general, basophils intensify the inflammatory response. They share this trait with mast cells. In the past, mast cells were considered to be basophils that left the circulation. However, this appears not to be the case, as the two cell types develop from different lineages.

The granules of basophils release histamines, which contribute to inflammation, and heparin, which opposes blood clotting. High counts of basophils are associated with allergies, parasitic infections, and hypothyroidism. Low counts are associated with pregnancy, stress, and hyperthyroidism.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: