The evolutionary dynamics of timing of maternal immunity: Evaluating the role of age-specific mortality

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If a female survives an infection, she can transfer antibodies against that particular pathogen to any future offspring she produces. The resulting protection of offspring for a period after their birth is termed maternal immunity. Because infection in newborns is associated with high mortality, the duration of this protection is expected to be under strong selection. Evolutionary modelling structured around a trade-off between fertility and duration of maternal immunity has indicated selection for longer duration of maternal immunity for hosts with longer lifespans. Here, we use a new modelling framework to extend this analysis to consider characteristics of pathogens (and hosts) in further detail. Importantly, given the challenges in characterizing trade-offs linked to immune function empirically, our model makes no assumptions about costs of longer lasting maternal immunity. Rather, a key component of this analysis is variation in mortality over age. We found that the optimal duration of maternal immunity is shaped by the shifting balance of the burden of infection between young and old individuals. As age of infection depends on characteristics of both the host and the pathogen, both affect the evolution of duration of maternal immunity. Our analysis provides additional support for selection for longer duration of maternal immunity in long-lived hosts, even in the absence of explicit costs linked to duration of maternal immunity. Further, the scope of our results provides explanations for exceptions to the general correlation between duration of maternal immunity and lifespan, as we found that both pathogen characteristics and trans-generational effects can lead to important shifts in fitness linked to maternal immunity. Finally, our analysis points to new directions for quantifying the trade-offs that drive the development of the immune system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)493-502
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Age trajectory of mortality
  • Host parasite interaction
  • Life history evolution
  • Maternal immunity


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