What are Basophils?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Basophils are a type of white blood cell. These cells are extremely rare, making up less than one percent of the white blood cells in the body at any given time. They are also not very well understood, despite the best efforts of researchers interested in the components of the blood. Although the basic mechanism of basophils and what they do in the body has been studied, many researchers suspect that there is more to these cells than meets the eye, and several studies probing into the details of these cells have been conducted to learn more about them.

A diagram of white blood cells, including basophils.
A diagram of white blood cells, including basophils.

These cells are part of a family of white blood cells known as granulocytes, named for the distinctive granules of material inside their cell membranes. These granules contain pieces of information relevant to the immune system, and compounds which the immune system utilizes when it responds to an infection or inflammation. Among other things, these cells can release histamine and heparin to respond to a suspected infection. Release of the granules is known as degranulation.

Different types of white blood cells.
Different types of white blood cells.

The name “basophil” is a reference to the fact that these cells take dyes and stains very readily, turning a vivid purple when stained with the base dyes used to prepare specimens for study and identification. Staining makes basophils easier to see, because they stand out from a blood sample, although the stain obscures the internal structures of the cell. Each basophil has a two-lobed nucleus, surrounded by the tiny granules it carries.

High basophil levels have been observed in people with asthma.
High basophil levels have been observed in people with asthma.

Basophils originate in the bone marrow, where they are created by stem cells. They circulate throughout the body in the blood stream, with the ability to pass into various tissues as needed. When an infectious agent is detected by the immune system, the cells respond, along with numerous other types of white blood cells. Researchers believe that in addition to helping at the site of an infection, these cells also help the body develop immunities by storing information which can be used by the T cells.

The primary purpose of basophils is to release histamine in response to an antigen, or an allergen such as pet dander.
The primary purpose of basophils is to release histamine in response to an antigen, or an allergen such as pet dander.

Normal basophil counts can vary, depending on the patient and the situation. In a healthy person, the count is typically very low. In someone with an active infection or allergic response, the number of basophils in the blood can climb, betraying the presence of an infection. High basophil levels have also been observed in people with asthma, which may be due to the chronic lung inflammations experienced by many asthma sufferers.

When stained, basophils will stand out from the rest of the blood sample.
When stained, basophils will stand out from the rest of the blood sample.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon994747

What size is a basophil?

anon160380

after histamine is released by the granules of the basophils, its role to act as an neurotransmitter in the inflammation response, so it transmits signals to the brain to feel pain and to localize the area of infection. also the histamine helps in the inflammatory response

by vasodilation and increases the permeability of capillaries to allow the movement of basophils from the bloodstream to the tissues where the infected area is.

anon134570

what does the histamine do once it is released by the basophil?

showered72

A low basophil count is often difficult to detect. This lessened number of specific white blood cells is referred to as basopenia. It has been proven to be associated with a chronic itching condition referred to as autoimmune urticaria.

pistachios

Basophils occur in unusually high numbers where there is an ectoparasite infection such as a tick implantation. It is believed that basophils may contribute to the severity of symptoms that occur during such infections.

surreallife

Basophils play a role in allergic reactions such as the response to the bee stings.

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