Like T cells, B cells possess antigen-specific receptors with diverse specificities. Although they rely on T cells for optimum function, B cells can be activated without help from T cells. B-cell receptors (BCRs) for naïve mature B cells are membrane-bound monomeric forms of IgD and IgM. They have two identical heavy chains and two identical light chains connected by disulfide bonds into a basic “Y” shape. The trunk of the Y-shaped molecule, the constant region of the two heavy chains, spans the B cell membrane. The two antigen-binding sites exposed to the exterior of the B cell are involved in the binding of specific pathogen epitopes to initiate the activation process. It is estimated that each naïve mature B cell has upwards of 100,000 BCRs on its membrane, and each of these BCRs has an identical epitope-binding specificity.
In order to be prepared to react to a wide range of microbial epitopes, B cells, like T cells, use genetic rearrangement of hundreds of gene segments to provide the necessary diversity of receptor specificities. The variable region of the BCR heavy chain is made up of V, D, and J segments, similar to the β chain of the TCR. The variable region of the BCR light chain is made up of V and J segments, similar to the α chain of the TCR. Genetic rearrangement of all possible combinations of V-J-D (heavy chain) and V-J (light chain) provides for millions of unique antigen-binding sites for the BCR and for the antibodies secreted after activation.
One important difference between BCRs and TCRs is the way they can interact with antigenic epitopes. Whereas TCRs can only interact with antigenic epitopes that are presented within the antigen-binding cleft of MHC I or MHC II, BCRs do not require antigen presentation with MHC; they can interact with epitopes on free antigens or with epitopes displayed on the surface of intact pathogens. Another important difference is that TCRs only recognize protein epitopes, whereas BCRs can recognize epitopes associated with different molecular classes (e.g., proteins, polysaccharides, lipopolysaccharides).
Activation of B cells occurs through different mechanisms depending on the molecular class of the antigen. Activation of a B cell by a protein antigen requires the B cell to function as an APC, presenting the protein epitopes with MHC II to helper T cells. Because of their dependence on T cells for activation of B cells, protein antigens are classified as T-dependent antigens. In contrast, polysaccharides, lipopolysaccharides, and other nonprotein antigens are considered T-independent antigens because they can activate B cells without antigen processing and presentation to T cells.
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