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.
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.
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.
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.
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.