The quantal theory of how the immune system discriminates between "self and non-self" Academic Article uri icon


MeSH Major

  • Disease Eradication
  • Smallpox
  • Variola virus


  • In the past 50 years, immunologists have accumulated an amazing amount of information as to how the immune system functions. However, one of the most fundamental aspects of immunity, how the immune system discriminates between self vs. non-self, still remains an enigma. Any attempt to explain this most intriguing and fundamental characteristic must account for this decision at the level of the whole immune system, but as well, at the level of the individual cells making up the immune system. Moreover, it must provide for a molecular explanation as to how and why the cells behave as they do. The "Quantal Theory", proposed herein, is based upon the "Clonal Selection Theory", first proposed by Sir McFarland Burnet in 1955, in which he explained the remarkable specificity as well as diversity of recognition of everything foreign in the environment. The "Quantal Theory" is built upon Burnet's premise that after antigen selection of cell clones, a proliferative expansion of the selected cells ensues. Furthermore, it is derived from experiments which indicate that the proliferation of antigen-selected cell clones is determined by a quantal, "all-or-none", decision promulgated by a critical number of cellular receptors triggered by the T Cell Growth Factor (TCGF), interleukin 2 (IL2). An extraordinary number of experiments reported especially in the past 20 years, and detailed herein, indicate that the T cell Antigen Receptor (TCR) behaves similarly, and also that there are several critical numbers of triggered TCRs that determine different fates of the T cells. Moreover, the fates of the cells appear ultimately to be determined by the TCR triggering of the IL2 and IL2 receptor (IL2R) genes, which are also expressed in a very quantal fashion. The "Quantal Theory" states that the fundamental decisions of the T cell immune system are dependent upon the cells receiving a critical number of triggered TCRs and IL2Rs and that the cells respond in an all-or-none fashion. The "Quantal Theory" accounts fully for the development of T cells in the thymus, and such fundamental cellular fates as both "positive" and "negative" selection, as well as the decision to differentiate into a "Regulatory T cell" (T-Reg). In the periphery, the "Quantal Theory" accounts for the decision to proliferate or not in response to the presence of an antigen, either non-self or self, or to differentiate into a T-Reg. Since the immune system discriminates between self and non-self antigens by the accumulated number of triggered TCRs and IL2Rs, therapeutic manipulation of the determinants of these quantal decisions should permit new approaches to either enhance or dampen antigen-specific immune responses.

publication date

  • December 17, 2004



  • Academic Article



  • eng

PubMed Central ID

  • PMC544850

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1186/1476-9433-3-3

PubMed ID

  • 15606917

Additional Document Info

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