Lymphocytes: B Cells, T Cells, Plasma Cells, and Natural Killer Cells

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Lymphocytes are the primary cells of adaptive immune responses. The two basic types of lymphocytes, B cells and T cells, are identical morphologically with a large central nucleus surrounded by a thin layer of cytoplasm. They are distinguished from each other by their surface protein markers as well as by the molecules they secrete. While B cells mature in red bone marrow and T cells mature in the thymus, they both initially develop from bone marrow. T cells migrate from bone marrow to the thymus gland where they further mature. B cells and T cells are found in many parts of the body, circulating in the bloodstream and lymph, and residing in secondary lymphoid organs, including the spleen and lymph nodes, which will be described later in this section.

B Cells

B cells are immune cells that function primarily by producing antibodies. An antibody is any of the group of proteins that binds specifically to pathogen-associated molecules known as antigens. An antigen is a chemical structure on the surface of a pathogen that binds to T or B lymphocyte antigen receptors. Once activated by binding to antigen, B cells differentiate into cells that secrete a soluble form of their surface antibodies. These activated B cells are known as plasma cells.

T Cells

The T cell, on the other hand, does not secrete antibody but performs a variety of functions in the adaptive immune response. Different T cell types have the ability to either secrete soluble factors that communicate with other cells of the adaptive immune response or destroy cells infected with intracellular pathogens.

Plasma Cells

Another type of lymphocyte of importance is the plasma cell. A plasma cell is a B cell that has differentiated in response to antigen binding, and has thereby gained the ability to secrete soluble antibodies. These cells differ in morphology from standard B and T cells in that they contain a large amount of cytoplasm packed with the protein-synthesizing machinery known as rough endoplasmic reticulum.

Natural Killer Cells

A fourth important lymphocyte is the natural killer cell, a participant in the innate immune response. A natural killer cell (NK) is a circulating blood cell that contains cytotoxic (cell-killing) granules in its extensive cytoplasm. It shares this mechanism with the cytotoxic T cells of the adaptive immune response. NK cells are among the body’s first lines of defense against viruses and certain types of cancer.


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:



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