Trade-offs between the reproductive and immune systems: facultative responses to resources or obligate responses to reproduction?

Am Nat. 2007 Jul;170(1):79-89. doi: 10.1086/518569. Epub 2007 May 11.


A major challenge in biology is understanding how organisms partition limited resources among physiological processes. For example, offspring production and self-maintenance are important for fitness and survival, yet these critical processes often compete for resources. While physiological trade-offs between reproduction and immune function have been documented, their regulation remains unclear. Most current evidence suggests that physiological changes during specific reproductive states directly suppress various components of the immune system; however, some studies have not found this clear relationship. We performed two experiments in female tree lizards (Urosaurus ornatus) that demonstrate the presence of trade-offs between the reproductive and immune systems under controlled laboratory conditions. These results also support the hypothesis that these trade-offs are a facultative response to resource availability and are not obligatory responses to physiological changes during reproduction. We found that (1) experimentally increasing reproductive investment under limited resources resulted in suppressed immune function and (2) experimentally limiting resources resulted in immunosuppression but only during resource costly reproductive activities. There seems to be a critical balance of resources that is maintained between multiple processes, and changes in the balance between energy intake and output can have major consequences for immune function.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Size
  • Energy Intake
  • Female
  • Immunity / physiology*
  • Lizards / anatomy & histology
  • Lizards / immunology
  • Lizards / physiology*
  • Ovarian Follicle / anatomy & histology
  • Reproduction
  • Vitellogenesis
  • Wound Healing / immunology
  • Wound Healing / physiology