Optimal immune specificity at the intersection of host life history and parasite epidemiology

Alexander E. Downie, Andreas Mayer, C. Jessica E. Metcalf, Andrea L. Graham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Hosts diverge widely in how, and how well, they defend themselves against infection and immunopathology. Why are hosts so heterogeneous? Both epidemiology and life history are commonly hypothesized to influence host immune strategy, but the relationship between immune strategy and each factor has commonly been investigated in isolation. Here, we show that interactions between life history and epidemiology are crucial for determining optimal immune specificity and sensitivity. We propose a demographically-structured population dynamics model, in which we explore sensitivity and specificity of immune responses when epidemiological risks vary with age. We find that variation in life history traits associated with both reproduction and longevity alters optimal immune strategies–but the magnitude and sometimes even direction of these effects depends on how epidemiological risks vary across life. An especially compelling example that explains previously-puzzling empirical observations is that depending on whether infection risk declines or rises at reproductive maturity, later reproductive maturity can select for either greater or lower immune specificity, potentially illustrating why studies of lifespan and immune variation across taxa have been inconclusive. Thus, the sign of selection on the life history-immune specificity relationship can be reversed in different epidemiological contexts. Drawing on published life history data from a variety of chordate taxa, we generate testable predictions for this facet of the optimal immune strategy. Our results shed light on the causes of the heterogeneity found in immune defenses both within and among species and the ultimate variability of the relationship between life history and immune specificity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1009714
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology
  • Ecology
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics
  • Modeling and Simulation


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