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Pediatr Res. 1998 Feb;43(2):155-62.

Evolution of immunologic functions of the mammary gland and the postnatal development of immunity.

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Department of Pediatrics, The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston 77555-0369, USA.


Physiologic delays in production of immune factors occur in mammals including Homo sapiens. This finding is counter to a basic tenet of biologic evolution, because such delays increase the risk of infections. The disadvantage is, however, offset by defense factors in milk of the species in whom the developmental delay occurs. Reciprocal relationships between the production of immune factors by the lactating mammary gland and the production of those defense agents during early infancy are found in all investigated mammalian species. Thus, the evolution of these processes is closely related. Certain immunologic components of milk are highly conserved, whereas others vary according to the species. The variations most likely evolved by genetic mutations and natural selection. In addition, the immune composition of mammalian milks is associated with developmental delays in the same immunologic agents. Furthermore, most closely related mammals, such as humans and chimpanzees, are most similar in the defense agents in their milks and the corresponding developmental delays in their immune systems. Defense factors in human milk include antimicrobial agents (secretory IgA, lactoferrin, lysozyme, glycoconjugates, oligosaccharides, and digestive products of milk lipids), antiinflammatory factors (antioxidants, epithelial growth factors, cellular protective agents, and enzymes that degrade mediators of inflammation), immunomodulators (nucleotides, cytokines, and antiidiotypic antibodies), and leukocytes (neutrophils, macrophages, and lymphocytes). Because of a lack of geographic/ethnic variation in the immunologic composition of human milk and corresponding immunologic delays in infants, these evolutionary processes seem stable. This is supported by investigations of diverse populations that indicate that this evolutionary outcome is highly beneficial to human infants.

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