White blood cell
A scanning electron microscope image of normal circulating human blood. In addition to
the irregularly shaped leukocytes, both red blood cells and many small disc-shaped
platelets are visible.
White blood cells, or leukocytes (also spelled "leucocytes"), are cells of the immune
system defending the body against both infectious disease and foreign materials. Five
different and diverse types of leukocytes exist, but they are all produced and derived from
a multipotent cell in the bone marrow known as a hematopoietic stem cell. Leukocytes
are found throughout the body, including the blood and lymphatic system.
The number of leukocytes in the blood is often an indicator of disease. There are
normally between 4×109
white blood cells in a litre of blood, making up
approximately 1% of blood in a healthy adult.
In conditions such as leukemia, the
number of leukocytes is higher than normal, and in leukopenia, this number is much
lower. The physical properties of leukocytes, such as volume, conductivity, and
granularity, may change due to activation, the presence of immature cells, or the presence
of malignant leukocytes in leukemia.
The name "white blood cell" derives from the fact that after centrifugation of a blood
sample, the white cells are found in the buffy coat, a thin layer of nucleated cells between
the sedimented red blood cells and the blood plasma, which is typically white in color.
The scientific term leukocyte directly reflects this description, derived from Greek leukos
- white, and kytos - cell. Blood plasma may sometimes be green if there are large amounts
of neutrophils in the sample, due to the heme-containing enzyme myeloperoxidase that
There are several different types of white blood cells. They all have many things in
common, but are all different. One primary technique to classify them is to look for the
presence of granules, which allows the differentiation of cells into the categories
granulocytes and agranulocytes:
• Granulocytes (polymorphonuclear leukocytes): leukocytes characterised by the
presence of differently staining granules in their cytoplasm when viewed under
light microscopy. These granules are membrane-bound enzymes which primarily
act in the digestion of endocytosed particles. There are three types of
granulocytes: neutrophils, basophils, and eosinophils, which are named according
to their staining properties.
• Agranulocytes (mononuclear leucocytes): leukocytes characterized by the
apparent absence of granules in their cytoplasm. Although the name implies a
lack of granules these cells do contain non-specific azurophilic granules, which
. The cells include lymphocytes, monocytes, and macrophages.
Main targets Nucleus[
6 hours-few days
(days in spleen
and other tissue)
(circulate for 4-5
B cells: various
MHC class 2
CD8+ cytotoxic T
weeks to years
γδ T cells:
migrate from the
other tissues and
and stimulation of
cells that respond
to the pathogen.
Main function is
as an antigen-
Main article: Neutrophil
Neutrophils defend against bacterial or fungal infection and other very small
inflammatory processes that are usually first responders to microbial infection; their
activity and death in large numbers forms pus. They are commonly referred to as
polymorphonuclear (PMN) leukocytes, although technically PMN refers to all
granulocytes. They have a multilobed nucleus which may appear like multiple nuclei,
hence the name polymorphonuclear leukocyte. The cytoplasm may look transparent
because of fine granules that are faintly pink in color. Neutrophils are very active in
phagocytosing bacteria and are present in large amount in the pus of wounds. These cells
are not able to renew their lysosomes used in digesting microbes and die after having
phagocytosed a few pathogens.
Main article: Eosinophil
Eosinophils primarily deal with parasitic infections and an increase in them may indicate
such. Eosinophils are also the predominant inflammatory cells in allergic reactions. The
most important causes of eosinophilia include allergies such as asthma, hay fever, and
hives; and also parasitic infections. Generally their nucleus is bi-lobed. The cytoplasm is
full of granules which assume a characteristic pink-orange color with eosin stain.
Main article: Basophil granulocyte
Basophils are chiefly responsible for allergic and antigen response by releasing the
chemical histamine causing inflammation. The nucleus is bi- or tri-lobed, but it is hard to
see because of the number of coarse granules which hide it. They are characterised by
their large blue granules.
Main article: Lymphocyte
Lymphocytes are much more common in the lymphatic system. Lymphocytes are
distinguished by having a deeply staining nucleus which may be eccentric in location,
and a relatively small amount of cytoplasm. The blood has three types of lymphocytes:
• B cells: B cells make antibodies that bind to pathogens to enable their destruction.
(B cells not only make antibodies that bind to pathogens, but after an attack, some
B cells will retain the ability to produce an antibody to serve as a 'memory'
• T cells:
o CD4+ (helper) T cells co-ordinate the immune response and are important
in the defense against intracellular bacteria. In acute HIV infection, these
T cells are the main index to identify the individual's immune system
activity. Research has shown 
that CD8+ cells are also another index to
identify human's immune activity.
o CD8+ cytotoxic T cells are able to kill virus-infected and tumor cells.
o γδ T cells possess an alternative T cell receptor as opposed to CD4+ and
CD8+ αβ T cells and share characteristics of helper T cells, cytotoxic T
cells and natural killer cells.
• Natural killer cells: Natural killer cells are able to kill cells of the body which are
displaying a signal to kill them, as they have been infected by a virus or have
Main article: Monocyte
Monocytes share the "vacuum cleaner" (phagocytosis) function of neutrophils, but are
much longer lived as they have an additional role: they present pieces of pathogens to T
cells so that the pathogens may be recognized again and killed, or so that an antibody
response may be mounted. Monocytes eventually leave the bloodstream to become tissue
macrophages which remove dead cell debris as well as attacking microorganisms. Neither
of these can be dealt with effectively by the neutrophils. Unlike neutrophils, monocytes
are able to replace their lysosomal contents and are thought to have a much longer active
life. They have the kidney shaped nucleus and are typically agranulated. They also
possess abundant cytoplasm.
Main article: Macrophage
Once monocytes move from the bloodstream out into the body tissues, they undergo
changes (differentiate) allowing phagocytosis and are then known as macrophages.
Medications causing leukopenia
Some medications can have an impact on the number and function of white blood cells.
Leukopenia is the reduction in the number of white blood cells, which may affect the
overall white cell count or one of the specific populations of white blood cells. For
example, if the number of neutrophils is low, the condition is known as neutropenia.
Likewise, low lymphocyte levels are termed lymphopenia. Medications which can cause
leukopenia include clozapine, an antipsychotic medication with a rare adverse effect
leading to the total absence of all granulocytes (neutrophils, basophils, eosinophils).
Other medications include immunosuppressive drugs, such as sirolimus, mycophenolate
mofetil, tacrolimus, and cyclosporine. Interferons used to treat multiple sclerosis, like
Rebif, Avonex, and Betaseron, can also cause leukopenia.
White blood cells seen under the dark field microscope
White blood cells can be seen as live cells with the dark field microscope. This method
allows judgement of the viability of the white blood cells, which is not possible with
stained samples. 
Some leukocytes migrate into the tissues of the body to take up a permanent residence at
that location rather than remaining in the blood. Often these cells have specific names
depending upon which tissue they settle in, such as fixed macrophages in the liver which
become known as Kupffer cells. These cells still serve a role in the immune system.
• Dendritic cells (Although these will often migrate to local lymph nodes upon
• Mast cells