Clonal Selection Theory of Immunity

Clonal Selection Theory of Immunity
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We may have a billion different types of antibody-releasing cells in our immune system, such that each recognizes a different molecular signature.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

To understand the dietary implications of the new autoimmune theory of cancer, we first have to understand how the immune system works. This was one of the greatest mysteries in all of biology—solved by a brilliant scientist who won the Nobel in 1960 for figuring out the clonal selection theory of immunity. Each one of our antibody-producing immune cells, called B cells, produces only one type of antibody. Antibodies are one of the main weapons our immune system uses to attack foreign invaders.

And, they’re specific. It’s not like we have one B cell that covers grass pollen, and another that covers bacteria. We have a B cell in our body whose only job is to produce antibodies against the pollen of purple Siberian onion grass—whether or not we ever come in contact with it. Another whose only job it is to make antibodies against the tail proteins of a bacteria that lives only in the thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.

Wait a second. There must be like a billion different things in the world. If each of our B cells produces only one type of antibody, then we’d have to have like a billion different types of B cells. And, we do, which is totally amazing.

So, let’s suppose one day you’re walking along, and get attacked by a platypus. They actually have poison spurs on their heels, you know. And so, for your whole life up until that point, the B cell in your body that produces antibodies against duck-billed platypus venom was just hanging around, twiddling its thumbs—until that very moment. As soon as the venom is detected, it raises its hand, and says me, me, me, me—starts dividing like crazy, makes copies of itself. And, soon, you have a whole swarm of clones specialized for platypus poison protection, fending off the toxin, and you live happily ever after.

That’s how the immune system works.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Aldo samulo via Wikimedia; funnyasduck; and Stowe Boyd

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

To understand the dietary implications of the new autoimmune theory of cancer, we first have to understand how the immune system works. This was one of the greatest mysteries in all of biology—solved by a brilliant scientist who won the Nobel in 1960 for figuring out the clonal selection theory of immunity. Each one of our antibody-producing immune cells, called B cells, produces only one type of antibody. Antibodies are one of the main weapons our immune system uses to attack foreign invaders.

And, they’re specific. It’s not like we have one B cell that covers grass pollen, and another that covers bacteria. We have a B cell in our body whose only job is to produce antibodies against the pollen of purple Siberian onion grass—whether or not we ever come in contact with it. Another whose only job it is to make antibodies against the tail proteins of a bacteria that lives only in the thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.

Wait a second. There must be like a billion different things in the world. If each of our B cells produces only one type of antibody, then we’d have to have like a billion different types of B cells. And, we do, which is totally amazing.

So, let’s suppose one day you’re walking along, and get attacked by a platypus. They actually have poison spurs on their heels, you know. And so, for your whole life up until that point, the B cell in your body that produces antibodies against duck-billed platypus venom was just hanging around, twiddling its thumbs—until that very moment. As soon as the venom is detected, it raises its hand, and says me, me, me, me—starts dividing like crazy, makes copies of itself. And, soon, you have a whole swarm of clones specialized for platypus poison protection, fending off the toxin, and you live happily ever after.

That’s how the immune system works.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Aldo samulo via Wikimedia; funnyasduck; and Stowe Boyd

Doctor's Note

Isn’t our immune system spectacular?! In Clonal Deletion Theory of Immunity, we’ll explore the flip side—how our immune system avoids attacking us. See Cancer as an Autoimmune Disease for an explanation of the autoimmune theory of cancer. Why all this background? This is all a set-up, so everyone can understand the dietary implications of The Inflammatory Meat Molecule Neu5Gc; don’t miss it!

For further context, check out my associated blog post: Plant-Based Diets for Multiple Sclerosis.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

20 responses to “Clonal Selection Theory of Immunity

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  1. wow. And I even learned something about platypuses (sp?).

    Our immune system is amazingly large, but also so specific. I would have guessed that humans had a system that was more general. In thinking about it, this video makes me think that our immune system is pretty fragile/not very strong. While a billion types of cells, give or take, is quite a high number, what happens when we need our immune system to work on something we don’t already have a cell for? It seems like our immune system is pretty weak in that way.

    Then again, I think, “How did we get all those types of cells to begin with?” Our bodies developed those types of cells at some point probably in reaction to a problem. And then we passed the new cell type down to our offspring? And so maybe our immune system is not so fragile/unchangeable after all? Just thinking…




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    1. it knows what should and should not be in the body. just like your penis isn’t on your forehead because your body knows where it should be.




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  2. Sounds related to the theory of homeopathy. Questions, though: (1) how do B cells and the immune system know when the threat has been neutralized; (2) where do all those clonal B cells go after they’ve rid the town of that specific outlaw?




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    1. Hi Seth,
      This is a gross oversimplification of what actually takes place when a B-cell (lymphocyte) is activated by coming into contact with an antigen or allergen. Upon activation, the B-cell multiplies and creates many clones (clonal selection) of itself (as seen in Dr. Greger’s video).

      B-cells (lymphocytes) create two main types of cells: (1) Effector (plasma) cells which secrete antibody and (2) Memory cells. Effector (plasma) cells are either short-lived cells that die within 3-5 days after being made and are used for immediate immunological defense; or the long-lived plasma cells which migrate primarily to the bone marrow where they remain for extended periods of time secreting high-affinity antibody.

      B-cells that have differentiated into Memory cells remain after the infection has cleared to provide “memory” of that specific antigen/allergen and provides long-term protection (immunity) allowing for a more rapid response if one becomes exposed again to that same antigen.

      Source: Minges Wols, Heather. Plasma Cells. Barat College of DePaul University, Lake Forest, Illinois, USA., doi:10.1038/npg.els.0004030.




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  3. if one is really curious about this mechanism got to make a visit to the relative wikipedia page(“clonal selection”)… and then read out the “VDJ recombination”… it’s not easy, but it is really fascinating… i’ve got a course in my university about this stuff…




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  4. Dear Dr. Greger,
    I am fascinated with your work. I am strictly vegan now but one thing I don’t understand… if our B cells are designed to attack all foreign invaders that naturally occur on this earth, what will the B cells do if they don’t recognize a Genetically Modified Organism. I would think that you above ALL people would be recommending staying completely away from these. I also would expect that you would be helping our community to better understand what is happening to our food supply as this affects our whole foods. Please do your research on this subject and don’t be afraid of the Big Ag companies. I know they are scary but we got your back. :-)




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    1. 8 months later…

      The B cells are generated kind of randomly, without any actual things to fight in mind. If they happen to be able to bind to the antigen, the work! So we’re just as prepared for viruses shot down from space by aliens as we are for the next strain to be bred in pig factory farms.




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  5. Absolutely Amazing, yet the Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made and how true this is just another miraculous example of our Great God and Creator who is taking care of us. Now we just need to make sure we are seeking the wisdom to help take care or ourselves too! Thanks Dr. Greger. Next to God you are my biggest hero and life saver for so many. Hope you are doing well and your family too. I did leave you a voice mail regarding my latest situation.




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