Activation of the adaptive immune defenses is triggered by pathogen-specific molecular structures called antigens. Antigens are similar to the pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) however, whereas PAMPs are molecular structures found on numerous pathogens, antigens are unique to a specific pathogen. The antigens that stimulate adaptive immunity to chickenpox, for example, are unique to the varicella-zoster virus but significantly different from the antigens associated with other viral pathogens.
The term antigen was initially used to describe molecules that stimulate the production of antibodies; in fact, the term comes from a combination of the words antibody and generator, and a molecule that stimulates antibody production is said to be antigenic. However, the role of antigens is not limited to humoral immunity and the production of antibodies; antigens also play an essential role in stimulating cellular immunity, and for this reason antigens are sometimes more accurately referred to as immunogens. In this text, however, we will typically refer to them as antigens.
Pathogens possess a variety of structures that may contain antigens. For example, antigens from bacterial cells may be associated with their capsules, cell walls, fimbriae, flagella, or pili. Bacterial antigens may also be associated with extracellular toxins and enzymes that they secrete. Viruses possess a variety of antigens associated with their capsids, envelopes, and the spike structures they use for attachment to cells.
Antigens may belong to any number of molecular classes, including carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids, proteins, and combinations of these molecules. Antigens of different classes vary in their ability to stimulate adaptive immune defenses as well as in the type of response they stimulate (humoral or cellular). The structural complexity of an antigenic molecule is an important factor in its antigenic potential. In general, more complex molecules are more effective as antigens. For example, the three-dimensional complex structure of proteins make them the most effective and potent antigens, capable of stimulating both humoral and cellular immunity. In comparison, carbohydrates are less complex in structure and therefore less effective as antigens; they can only stimulate humoral immune defenses. Lipids and nucleic acids are the least antigenic molecules, and in some cases may only become antigenic when combined with proteins or carbohydrates to form glycolipids, lipoproteins, or nucleoproteins.
One reason the three-dimensional complexity of antigens is so important is that antibodies and T cells do not recognize and interact with an entire antigen but with smaller exposed regions on the surface of antigens called epitopes. A single antigen may possess several different epitopes, and different antibodies may bind to different epitopes on the same antigen. For example, the bacterial flagellum is a large, complex protein structure that can possess hundreds or even thousands of epitopes with unique three-dimensional structures. Moreover, flagella from different bacterial species (or even strains of the same species) contain unique epitopes that can only be bound by specific antibodies.
An antigen’s size is another important factor in its antigenic potential. Whereas large antigenic structures like flagella possess multiple epitopes, some molecules are too small to be antigenic by themselves. Such molecules, called haptens, are essentially free epitopes that are not part of the complex three-dimensional structure of a larger antigen. For a hapten to become antigenic, it must first attach to a larger carrier molecule (usually a protein) to produce a conjugate antigen. The hapten-specific antibodies produced in response to the conjugate antigen are then able to interact with unconjugated free hapten molecules. Haptens are not known to be associated with any specific pathogens, but they are responsible for some allergic responses. For example, the hapten urushiol, a molecule found in the oil of plants that cause poison ivy, causes an immune response that can result in a severe rash (called contact dermatitis). Similarly, the hapten penicillin can cause allergic reactions to drugs in the penicillin class.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology