Ecological immunology: The organism in context

Integr Comp Biol. 2009 Sep;49(3):246-53. doi: 10.1093/icb/icp032. Epub 2009 May 22.


A major challenge in integrative biology is understanding the mechanisms by which organisms regulate trade-offs among various functions competing for limiting resources. Key among these competing processes is the maintenance of health and the production of offspring. Optimizing both, given limited resources, can prove challenging. The physiological and behavioral changes that occur during reproduction have been shown to greatly influence an organism's immune system, which can have consequences for susceptibility to disease. Likewise, investing in costly immunological defenses can impair reproductive function. However, the precise nature of these physiological and behavioral interactions appears to be greatly dependent upon the environmental context in which they occur. Here we take a comparative look at interactions between the reproductive and immune systems, including current immunological approaches, and discuss how similar studies can reveal vastly disparate results. Specifically, we highlight results from the ornate tree lizard (Urosuarus ornatus) and the Siberian hamster (Phodopus sungorus) model systems, which provide an example of current research in the field. Collectively, these results emphasize the importance of resource availability and an individual's energy stores for the existence of life-history trade-offs and the efficiency of physiological processes in general. Akin to Dobzhansky's famous line, like other aspects of biology, nothing in ecoimmunology seems to make sense except in the context of an organism's environment.