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Proc Biol Sci. 2017 Jul 26;284(1859). pii: 20170727. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.0727.

Dissecting the contributions of time and microbe density to variation in immune gene expression.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA.


Widespread differential expression of immunological genes is a hallmark of the response to infection in almost all surveyed taxa. However, several challenges remain in the attempt to connect differences in gene expression with functional outcomes like parasite killing and host survival. For example, temporal gene expression patterns are not always monotonic (unidirectional slope), yielding results that qualitatively depend on the time point selected for analysis. They may also be correlated to microbe density, confounding the strength of an immune response and resistance to parasites. In this study, we analyse these relationships in an mRNA-seq time series of Tribolium castaneum infected with Bacillus thuringiensis Our results suggest that many extracellular immunological components with known roles in immunity, like antimicrobial peptides and recognition proteins, are highly correlated to microbe load. On the other hand, intracellular components of immunological signalling pathways overwhelmingly show non-monotonic temporal patterns of gene expression, despite the underlying assumption of monotonicity in most ecological and comparative transcriptomics studies that rely on cross-sectional analyses. Our results raise a host of new questions, including to what extent variation in host resistance, infection tolerance and immunopathology can be explained by variation in the slope or sensitivity of these newly characterized patterns.


Tribolium castaneum; disease ecology; ecological immunology; gene expression; host–pathogen interactions; nonlinear dynamics

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