Early environments and the ecology of inflammation

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 16;109 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):17281-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1202244109. Epub 2012 Oct 8.


Recent research has implicated inflammatory processes in the pathophysiology of a wide range of chronic degenerative diseases, although inflammation has long been recognized as a critical line of defense against infectious disease. However, current scientific understandings of the links between chronic low-grade inflammation and diseases of aging are based primarily on research in high-income nations with low levels of infectious disease and high levels of overweight/obesity. From a comparative and historical point of view, this epidemiological situation is relatively unique, and it may not capture the full range of ecological variation necessary to understand the processes that shape the development of inflammatory phenotypes. The human immune system is characterized by substantial developmental plasticity, and a comparative, developmental, ecological framework is proposed to cast light on the complex associations among early environments, regulation of inflammation, and disease. Recent studies in the Philippines and lowland Ecuador reveal low levels of chronic inflammation, despite higher burdens of infectious disease, and point to nutritional and microbial exposures in infancy as important determinants of inflammation in adulthood. By shaping the regulation of inflammation, early environments moderate responses to inflammatory stimuli later in life, with implications for the association between inflammation and chronic diseases. Attention to the eco-logics of inflammation may point to promising directions for future research, enriching our understanding of this important physiological system and informing approaches to the prevention and treatment of disease.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • C-Reactive Protein / metabolism
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cytokines / blood
  • Ecosystem
  • Ecuador
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immune System / growth & development
  • Inflammation / etiology*
  • Inflammation Mediators / blood
  • Male
  • Models, Biological
  • Phenotype
  • Philippines
  • Pregnancy
  • Vaccines / immunology


  • Cytokines
  • Inflammation Mediators
  • Vaccines
  • C-Reactive Protein