Eco-immunology case study

Environment versus genes: understanding the causes of variable infection responses.

The problem

There is enormous variation in the way individuals respond to infection. Understanding the causes of this variation underpins our knowledge of disease susceptibility and control of infectious diseases. Remarkably, the main contributors to immune variation are poorly defined.

Within laboratory experiments, conditions are carefully controlled and environmental and genetic variability minimised to allow insights into specific immune mechanisms. However, outside of the laboratory multiple forces, both heritable and environmental, including parasite exposure and seasonal changes, combine to shape the ultimate immune response.

Understanding the main drivers of immune variation in the wild will inform strategies to increase resistance to diseases in humans and domestic animals, as well as inform conservation policies.

Our work

Together with a team of researchers at the University of Nottingham, we are defining the relative contributions of, for example, host genetics, age, pathogen exposure, microbiome and diet, to variation in immune responses in the wild.

We study a highly tractable wild house mouse population on the Isle of May and use a ‘mark-release-recapture’ approach to test three hypotheses:

  • variation in immune responses is driven more by environmental factors than host genetics;
  • the main environmental factor driving variation in immune responses is infection;
  • variation in immune responses will increase with age.

Our eco-immunology project brings an interdisciplinary approach to answer fundamental questions in immunology. It takes full advantage of our state-of-the-art flow cytometry environment and cutting-edge cell biology tools available at Manchester.

Andrew Muir – Isle of May Bird Observatory Newsletter

Principal investigators

Professor Kathryn Else

Dr Iris Mair

(in collaboration with the University of Nottingham)