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Immunosenescence in vertebrates and invertebrates

Ludmila Müller1*, Tamas Fülöp2 and Graham Pawelec3

Author Affiliations

1 Max-Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany

2 Research Center on Aging, University of Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada

3 Second Department of Internal Medicine, University of Tuebingen Medical School, Tuebingen, Germany

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Immunity & Ageing 2013, 10:12  doi:10.1186/1742-4933-10-12

Published: 2 April 2013


There is an established consensus that it is primarily the adaptive arm of immunity, and the T cell subset in particular, that is most susceptible to the deleterious changes with age known as “immunosenescence”. Can we garner any clues as to why this might be by considering comparative immunology and the evolutionary emergence of adaptive and innate immunity? The immune system is assumed to have evolved to protect the organism against pathogens, but the way in which this is accomplished is different in the innate-vs-adaptive arms, and it is unclear why the latter is necessary. Are there special characteristics of adaptive immunity which might make the system more susceptible to age-associated dysfunction? Given recent accumulating findings that actually there are age-associated changes to innate immunity and that these are broadly similar in vertebrates and invertebrates, we suggest here that it is the special property of memory in the adaptive immune system which results in the accumulation of cells with a restricted receptor repertoire, dependent on the immunological history of the individual’s exposures to pathogens over the lifetime, and which is commonly taken as a hallmark of “immunosenescence”. However, we further hypothesize that this immunological remodelling per se does not necessarily convey a disadvantage to the individual (ie. is not necessarily “senescence” if it is not deleterious). Indeed, under certain circumstances, or potentially even as a rule, this adaptation to the individual host environment may confer an actual survival advantage.