Five Classes of Antibodies and their Functions

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Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

In general, antibodies have two basic functions. They can act as the B cell antigen receptor or they can be secreted, circulate, and bind to a pathogen, often labeling it for identification by other forms of the immune response. Of the five antibody classes, notice that only two can function as the antigen receptor for naïve B cells: IgM and IgD. Mature B cells that leave the bone marrow express both IgM and IgD, but both antibodies have the same antigen specificity. Only IgM is secreted, however, and no other nonreceptor function for IgD has been discovered.

IgM consists of five four-chain structures (20 total chains with 10 identical antigen-binding sites) and is thus the largest of the antibody molecules. IgM is usually the first antibody made during a primary response. Its 10 antigen-binding sites and large shape allow it to bind well to many bacterial surfaces. It is excellent at binding complement proteins and activating the complement cascade, consistent with its role in promoting chemotaxis, opsonization, and cell lysis. Thus, it is a very effective antibody against bacteria at early stages of a primary antibody response. As the primary response proceeds, the antibody produced in a B cell can change to IgG, IgA, or IgE by the process known as class switching. Class switching is the change of one antibody class to another. While the class of antibody changes, the specificity and the antigen-binding sites do not. Thus, the antibodies made are still specific to the pathogen that stimulated the initial IgM response.

IgG is a major antibody of late primary responses and the main antibody of secondary responses in the blood. This is because class switching occurs during primary responses. IgG is a monomeric antibody that clears pathogens from the blood and can activate complement proteins (although not as well as IgM), taking advantage of its antibacterial activities. Furthermore, this class of antibody is the one that crosses the placenta to protect the developing fetus from disease exits the blood to the interstitial fluid to fight extracellular pathogens.

IgA exists in two forms, a four-chain monomer in the blood and an eight-chain structure, or dimer, in exocrine gland secretions of the mucous membranes, including mucus, saliva, and tears. Thus, dimeric IgA is the only antibody to leave the interior of the body to protect body surfaces. IgA is also of importance to newborns, because this antibody is present in mother’s breast milk (colostrum), which serves to protect the infant from disease.

IgE is usually associated with allergies and anaphylaxis. It is present in the lowest concentration in the blood, because its Fc region binds strongly to an IgE-specific Fc receptor on the surfaces of mast cells. IgE makes mast cell degranulation very specific, such that if a person is allergic to peanuts, there will be peanut-specific IgE bound to his or her mast cells. In this person, eating peanuts will cause the mast cells to degranulate, sometimes causing severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, a severe, systemic allergic response that can cause death.


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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