Immunosenescence and the ability to survive bacterial infection in the red flour beetle Tribolium castaneum

J Anim Ecol. 2016 Jan;85(1):291-301. doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12433. Epub 2015 Sep 14.


In most animals, ageing is associated with a decline in immune function (immune senescence). However, different components of the immune system seem to age differentially, and many studies do not measure the ultimate fitness consequences of immune function after infection. Previous work shows that immune function may be traded off with other fitness components such as reproduction. It is possible that age alters the nature of these trade-offs, particularly in conjunction with factors such as gender and mating that can also affect investment in immune function. We tested the impact of age, sex and mating on post-infection survivorship in Tribolium castaneum flour beetles, as well as the components of baseline constitutive innate immunity and external (secreted) immune function in uninfected individuals. We also tested whether the reproductive ability of uninfected females is traded off with immune function (baseline innate and external immunity) and post-infection survivorship across age groups. We found that age, sex and mating significantly affected immune components and infection outcome, although the magnitude and nature of the impact varied in each case. We found that older beetles were more susceptible to infection by the pathogen Bacillus thuringiensis even though major components of the constitutive innate immune defence (antibacterial and phenoloxidase activity) remained unchanged or improved with age. Thus, these aspects of innate immunity cannot explain the observed decline in post-infection survival of older beetles. We did not find trade-offs between the reproductive ability of uninfected females and their immune function. In contrast to innate immunity, external immunity showed an overall decline with age but was also affected by sex and mating. Finally, we show that bacterial infection alters external immunity via complex interactions between age, sex and mating status. Our work uncovers novel interactions between age, sex and mating that can determine the evolution and outcome of immunosenescence by affecting the time course of relative investment in different immune and fitness components.

Keywords: antibacterial activity; external defence; life history; phenoloxidase activity; reproductive senescence; sexual dimorphism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Bacillus thuringiensis / physiology*
  • Female
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Immunosenescence*
  • Longevity
  • Male
  • Sex Factors
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal
  • Tribolium / immunology
  • Tribolium / microbiology*
  • Tribolium / physiology*