Immunoglobulin M, or IgM for short, is a basic antibody that is produced by B cells. IgM is by far the physically largest antibody in the human circulatory system. It is the first antibody to appear in response to initial exposure to antigen. The spleen is the major site of specific IgM production. 
Structure and function
IgM forms polymers where multiple immunoglobulins are covalently linked together with disulfide bonds, mostly as a pentamer but also as a hexamer. IgM has a molecular mass of approximately 970 kDa (in its pentamer form). Because each monomer has two antigen binding sites, a pentameric IgM has 10 binding sites. Typically, however, IgM cannot bind 10 antigens at the same time because the large size of most antigens hinders binding to nearby sites.
The J chain is found in pentameric IgM but not in the hexameric form, perhaps due to space constraints in the hexameric complex. Pentameric IgM can also be made in the absence of J chain. At present, it is still uncertain what fraction of normal pentamer contains J chain, and to this extent it is also uncertain whether a J chain-containing pentamer contains one or more than one J chain. 
Because IgM is a large molecule, it cannot diffuse well, and is found in the interstitium only in very low quantities. IgM is primarily found in serum; however, because of the J chain, it is also important as a secretory immunoglobulin.
Due to its polymeric nature, IgM possesses high avidity, and is particularly effective at complement activation. By itself, IgM is an ineffective opsonin; however it contributes greatly to opsonization by activating complement and causing C3b to bind to the antigen.
In germline cells, the gene segment encoding the μ constant region of the heavy chain is positioned first among other constant region gene segments. For this reason, IgM is the first immunoglobulin expressed by mature B cells.
It is also the first immunoglobulin expressed in the fetus (around 20 weeks) and phylogenetically the earliest antibody to develop.
IgM antibodies appear early in the course of an infection and usually reappear, to a lesser extent, after further exposure. IgM antibodies do not pass across the human placenta (only isotype IgG).
These two biological properties of IgM make it useful in the diagnosis of infectious diseases. Demonstrating IgM antibodies in a patient's serum indicates recent infection, or in a neonate's serum indicates intrauterine infection (e.g. congenital rubella).
The development of anti-donor IgM after organ transplantation is not associated with graft rejection but it may have a protective effect.
IgM in normal serum is often found to bind to specific antigens, even in the absence of prior immunization. For this reason IgM has sometimes been called a "natural antibody". This phenomenon is probably due to the high avidity of IgM that allow it to bind detectably even to weakly cross-reacting antigens that are naturally occurring. For example the IgM antibodies that bind to the red blood cell A and B antigens might be formed in early life as a result of exposure to A- and B-like substances that are present on bacteria or perhaps also on plant materials.
IgM is more sensitive to denaturation by 2-mercaptoethanol than IgG. This technique was historically used to distinguish between these isotypes before specific anti-IgG and anti-IgM secondary antibodies for immunoassays became commercially available. Serum samples would be tested for reactivity with an antigen before or after 2-mercaptoethanol treatment to determine whether the activity was due to IgM or IgG.
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- Immunoglobulin M at the US National Library of Medicine Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)
- Immunoglobulin M Deficiency Reference from Medscape.com