Immunity in Society: Diverse Solutions to Common Problems

Simon A. Babayan & David S. Schneider
PLos Biology


Understanding how organisms fight infection has been a central focus of scientific research and medicine for the past couple of centuries, and a perennial object of trial and error by humans trying to mitigate the burden of disease.

Vaccination success relies upon the exposure of susceptible individuals to pathogen constituents that do not cause (excessive) pathology and that elicit specific immune memory. Mass vaccination allows us to study how immunity operates at the group level; denser populations are more prone to transmitting disease between individuals, but once a critical proportion of the population becomes immune, “herd immunity” emerges.

In social species, the combination of behavioural control of infection—e.g., segregation of sick individuals, disposal of the dead, quality assessment of food and water—and aggregation of immune individuals can protect non-immune members from disease.

While immune specificity and memory are well understood to underpin immunisation in vertebrates, it has been somewhat surprising to find similar phenomena in invertebrates, which lack the vertebrate molecular mechanisms deemed necessary for immunisation. Indeed, reports showing alternative forms of immune memory are accumulating in invertebrates.

In this issue of PLoS Biology, Konrad et al. present an example of fungus-specific immune responses in social ants that lead to the active immunisation of nestmates by infected individuals.

These findings join others in showing how organisms evolved diverse mechanisms that fulfil common functions, namely the discrimination between pathogens, the transfer of immunity between related individuals, and the group-level benefits of immunisation.

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