Genetic diversity in cytokines associated with immune variation and resistance to multiple pathogens in a natural rodent population

Andrew K. Turner, Mike Begon, Joseph Andres Jackson, Janette E. Bradley, Steve Paterson

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Abstract

Pathogens are believed to drive genetic diversity at host loci involved in immunity to infectious disease. To date, studies exploring the genetic basis of pathogen resistance in the wild have focussed almost exclusively on genes of the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC); the role of genetic variation elsewhere in the genome as a basis for variation in pathogen resistance has rarely been explored in natural populations. Cytokines are signalling molecules with a role in many immunological and physiological processes. Here we use a natural population of field voles (Microtus agrestis) to examine how genetic diversity at a suite of cytokine and other immune loci impacts the immune response phenotype and resistance to several endemic pathogen species. By using linear models to first control for a range of non-genetic factors, we demonstrate strong effects of genetic variation at cytokine loci both on host immunological parameters and on resistance to multiple pathogens. These effects were primarily localized to three cytokine genes (Interleukin 1 beta (Il1b), Il2, and Il12b), rather than to other cytokines tested, or to membrane-bound, non-cytokine immune loci. The observed genetic effects were as great as for other intrinsic factors such as sex and body weight. Our results demonstrate that genetic diversity at cytokine loci is a novel and important source of individual variation in immune function and pathogen resistance in natural populations. The products of these loci are therefore likely to affect interactions between pathogens and help determine survival and reproductive success in natural populations. Our study also highlights the utility of wild rodents as a model of ecological immunology, to better understand the causes and consequences of variation in immune function in natural populations including humans.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1002343
JournalPLoS Genetics
Volume7
Issue number10
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 20 Oct 2011

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