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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The evolutionary costs of immunological maintenance and deployment

Kurt A McKean1*, Christopher P Yourth2, Brian P Lazzaro3 and Andrew G Clark4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biological Sciences, SUNY at Albany, Albany NY 12222, USA

2 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto ON M5S 3B2, Canada

3 Department of Entomology, Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14853, USA

4 Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14853, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:76  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-76

Published: 3 March 2008

Abstract

Background

The evolution of disease resistance and immune function may be limited if increased immunocompetence comes at the expense of other fitness-determining traits. Both the maintenance of an immune system and the deployment of an immune response can be costly, and the observed costs may be evaluated as either physiological or evolutionary in origin. Evolutionary costs of immunological maintenance are revealed as negative genetic correlations between immunocompetence and fitness in the absence of infection. Costs of deployment are most often studied as physiological costs associated with immune system induction, however, evolutionary costs of deployment may also be present if genotypes vary in the extent of the physiological cost experienced.

Results

In this study we analyzed evolutionary and physiological costs of immunity in two environments representing food-limited and food-unlimited conditions. Patterns of genetic variation were estimated in females from 40 'hemiclone families' isolated from a population of D. melanogaster. Phenotypes evaluated included fecundity, weight measures at different time periods and resistance to Providencia rettgeri, a naturally occurring Gram-negative pathogen of D. melanogaster. In the food-limited environment we found a negative genetic correlation between fecundity in the absence of infection and resistance, indicative of an evolutionary cost of maintenance. No such correlation was observed in the food-unlimited environment, and the slopes of these correlations significantly differed, demonstrating a genotype-by-environment interaction for the cost of maintenance. Physiological costs of deployment were also observed, but costs were primarily due to wounding. Deployment costs were slightly exaggerated in the food-limited environment. Evolutionary costs of immunological deployment on fecundity were not observed, and there was only marginally significant genetic variation in the cost expressed by changes in dry weight.

Conclusion

Our results suggest that the costs of immunity may be an important factor limiting the evolution of resistance in food-limited environments. However, the significant genotype-by-environment interaction for maintenance costs, combined with the observation that deployment costs were partially mitigated in the food-unlimited environment, emphasizes the importance of considering environmental variation when estimating patterns of genetic variance and covariance, and the dubious nature of predicting evolutionary responses to selection from quantitative genetic estimates carried out in a single environment.