Antibody diffusion in human cervical mucus

Biophys J. 1994 Feb;66(2 Pt 1):508-15. doi: 10.1016/s0006-3495(94)80802-1.


The mucosal immune system actively transports large quantities of antibodies into all mucus secretions, and these secreted antibodies help prevent infectious entry of many pathogens. Mucus is generally thought to protect epithelial cells by forming a diffusional barrier through which only small molecules can pass. However, electron microscopy indicates that the pore size in mucus is approximately 100 nm, which suggests that antibodies as well as other large molecules might also diffuse through mucus. We measured the diffusion coefficients for antibodies and other proteins within human midcycle cervical mucus using two techniques: fluorescence imaging of concentration profiles and fluorescence photobleaching recovery. The two techniques are complementary, since the rates of diffusion are observed over millimeter distances with fluorescence imaging of concentration profiles and micron distances with fluorescence photobleaching recovery. Both methods yielded essentially the same diffusion coefficients. In contrast to previous reports indicating mucus significantly impedes diffusion of small molecules, antibody diffusion in mucus was relatively unimpeded. In our observations IgG, IgG fragments, IgA, and IgM diffused almost as rapidly in cervical mucus as in water (1.0 > Dmucus/Dwater > 0.7). Simple models for diffusion through water-filled pores suggest that the hydrodynamic pore size for cervical mucus is approximately 100 nm, smaller than the approximately 1000 nm pore size of a collagen gel (at 1 mg/ml) and larger than the approximately 10 nm pore size of gelatin (at 100 mg/ml). This estimated pore size is consistent both with electron micrographs and geometric models of interfiber spacing. Based on these results, we predict that particles as large as viruses can diffuse rapidly through human midcycle cervical mucus, provided the particle forms no adhesive interactions with mucus glycoproteins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies / administration & dosage
  • Antibodies / metabolism*
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Cervix Mucus / immunology*
  • Cervix Mucus / metabolism
  • Diffusion
  • Female
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin A, Secretory / metabolism
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Polyvinyls


  • Antibodies
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Immunoglobulin A, Secretory
  • Polyvinyls
  • ethylenevinylacetate copolymer