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Integr Comp Biol. 2003 Apr;43(2):293-9. doi: 10.1093/icb/43.2.293.

Origins and evolutionary relationships between the innate and adaptive arms of immune systems.

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Department of Zoology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331-2914.


Long before vertebrates first appeared, protists, plants and animals had evolved diverse, effective systems of innate immunity. Ancestors of the vertebrates utilized components of the complement system, protease-inhibitors, metal-binding proteins, carbohydrate-binding proteins and other plasma-born molecules as humoral agents of defense. In these same animals, immunocytes endowed with a repertoire of defensive behaviors expressed Toll-like receptors. They made NADPH oxidase, superoxide dismutase and other respiratory burst enzymes to produce toxic oxygen radicals, and nitric oxide synthase to produce nitric oxide. Antimicrobial peptides and lytic enzymes were in their armory. Immune responses were orchestrated by cytokines. Furthermore, genes within the immunoglobulin superfamily were expressed to meet a variety of needs possibly including defense. However, recombination activating genes played no role. With the acquisition of one or more transposases and the resulting capacity to generate diverse receptors from immunoglobulin gene fragments, the adaptive (lymphoid) arm of the immune system was born. This may have coincided with the elaboration of the neural crest. Naturally, the role of the adaptive arm was initially subservient to the defensive functions of the pre-existing innate arm. The strong selective advantages that stemmed from having "sharp-shooters" (cells making antigen-specific receptors) on the defense team ensured their retention. Refined through evolution, adaptive immunity, even in mammals, remains dependent upon cells of the innate series (e.g., dendritic cells) for signals driving their functional maturation. This paper calls for some fresh thinking leading to a clearer vision of the origins and co-evolution of the two arms of modern immune systems, and suggests a possible neural origin for the adaptive immune system.


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