I am quite curious about this:

  1. Where and how is knowledge that the adaptive immune system accumulates stored?
  2. What is the "memory size limit" of this storage method if there is any?
  3. Why cant this knowledge be transferred between individuals like we transfer computer antivirus definitions?
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Are you thinking of the adaptive immune system? There is also "knowledge" in the innate immune system, in the form of generically coded receptors, but that part is fixed for each individual. $\endgroup$
    – Roland
    Jun 18, 2017 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, this question is about knowledge acquired during the life of a person, not present since birth $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Biology.SE! Although the question is nice, biologists generally don't recommend using such an analogy since both these pictures (of immune system and computer storage) don't superimpose clearly. I'd recommend you first study more about immune system, especially adaptive immune system and HLA. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ @another'Homosapien' I agree the computer analogy is not great, but it could still be interesting to consider information content of adaptive immunity (like the number of possible hypervariable region sequences etc). $\endgroup$
    – Roland
    Jun 18, 2017 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ @roland that would be interesting, but it would also be problematic to scale this up (which would eventually become necessary). Also, I wanted to first make this sure that the OP knows what stuff we'd talking about while using this analogy. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 12:43

1 Answer 1


There is probably no precise answer to this question since, as others pointed out, the adaptive immune system is not really comparable to a computer. That said, here are a some items you might want to look into.

Question 1: the main site of information storage for the adaptive immune system is a special region of DNA in T and B lymphocytes that encodes immunoglobulins, the proteins that these cells use to recognize foreign organisms. The sequence stored in this special DNA region can be rearranged by hypermutation and recombination mechanisms. This occurs early in the life of T and B lymphocytes, so that each cell gets a unique DNA sequence. Those cells that later on happen to recognize invaders will multiply as part of the immune response, and they will later survive as memory cells, so that their specific DNA sequences are retained. If the same infection happen again later in life, these memory cells will help the immune system respond more quickly.

Question 2: the region of DNA used is on the order of 1 million bases long, and it has been estimated that the human immune system can generate around $10^{11}$ different immunoglobulins. How to interpret these numbers in terms of "memory size" is not clear to me though. On one hand, 1 million bases is equivalent to 250 kbytes (each nucleotide base storing 2 bits); but on the other hand, $10^{11}$ as an integer can be stored in 37 bits. I guess it depends on what level of information you consider.

Question 3: there is no mechanism for directly transfering information between lymphocytes. Lymphocytes cannot read and write their DNA at will, and they are not able to simply copy sequences from each other. Rather, their diversity comes from first randomly re-shuffling their immunoglobulin-coding DNA, followed by selection of the successful cells --- this is a brute-force, random-search method, like evolution itself. Also, lymphocytes from unrelated individuals will generally interpret each other as invaders, causing an immune response. However, it is possible to experimentally "edit" the "memory" of lymphocytes extracted from blood using genetic techniques. This has for example recently been explored to "train" cancer patients own lymphocytes to attack cancer cells, in some cases with remarkably good results.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, this is the information I was looking for! Sorry if I didn't formulate my question properly, as I come from computer science background. $\endgroup$ Jun 18, 2017 at 12:54

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