Phylogenetic aspects of the complement system

Dev Comp Immunol. 2001 Oct-Dec;25(8-9):745-62. doi: 10.1016/s0145-305x(01)00034-9.


During evolution two general systems of immunity have emerged: innate or, natural immunity and adaptive (acquired), or specific immunity. The innate system is phylogenetically older and is found in some form in all multicellular organisms, whereas the adaptive system appeared about 450 million years ago and is found in all vertebrates except jawless fish. The complement system in higher vertebrates plays an important role as an effector of both the innate and the acquired immune response, and also participates in various immunoregulatory processes. In lower vertebrates complement is activated by the alternative and lectin pathways and is primarily involved in the opsonization of foreign material. The Agnatha (the most primitive vertebrate species) possess the alternative and lectin pathways while cartilaginous fish are the first species in which the classical pathway appears following the emergence of immunoglobulins. The rest of the poikilothermic species, ranging from teleosts to reptilians, appear to contain a well-developed complement system resembling that of the homeothermic vertebrates. It seems that most of the complement components have appeared after the duplication of primordial genes encoding C3/C4/C5, fB/C2, C1s/C1r/MASP-1/MASP-2, and C6/C7/C8/C9 molecules, in a process that led to the formation of distinct activation pathways. However, unlike homeotherms, several species of poikilotherms (e.g. trout) have recently been shown to possess multiple forms of complement components (C3, factor B) that are structurally and functionally more diverse than those of higher vertebrates. We hypothesize that this remarkable diversity has allowed these animals to expand their innate capacity for immune recognition and response. Recent studies have also indicated the possible presence of complement receptors in protochordates and lower vertebrates. In conclusion, there is considerable evidence suggesting that the complement system is present in the entire lineage of deuterostomes, and regulatory complement components have been identified in all species beyond the protochordates, indicating that the mechanisms of complement activation and regulation have developed in parallel.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Complement System Proteins / genetics*
  • Fishes / genetics*
  • Fishes / immunology*
  • Gene Duplication
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / genetics
  • Invertebrates / genetics
  • Invertebrates / immunology
  • Phylogeny*


  • Complement System Proteins