Saturday, January 24, 2015

Nurture Immunity: Immune system influenced more by environment than by genes

Differences in immune protection presumably explain why some people exposed to infection resist disease or recover while others succumb.  These authors sought to distinguish the influences of genes and environment on immunity. They compared the cellular and molecular components of the immune system among 210 twins: 78 monozygotic (MZ, “identical”) and 27 dizygotic (DZ, fraternal) pairs.  They measured 43 serum proteins and 72 immune cell populations repeatedly and longitudinally (over time) to assess actual variations and account for technical variations.  MZ twins, who have practically identical genomes, and DZ twins, who share half their genes, are especially valuable for assessing the relative contributions of “nature or nurture” (genes or environment) to phenotype.  Their analysis allowed them to detect as little as 20% heritability.

The levels of few proteins and cell populations are under strong genetic control, such as interleukin-6 and CD4+ “central memory” T cells, but most are only weakly heritable or not at all (Fig 1). They found that a common, chronic infection, by cytomegalovirus (CMV), influences the levels of most (58%) cell populations and proteins (Fig 5).  Variation between twins increased as they age, probably reflecting different environmental stimuli and epigenetic changes (Fig 4).  Most intriguing, they correlate the heritability of response to vaccines to the age of immunization, whereby early childhood vaccines are highly heritable while vaccines after early adolescence have no detectable heritability (Table 1, shown below).  

Brodin et al. Cell. 2015 Jan 15;160(1-2):37-47. Variation inthe human immune system is largely driven by non-heritable influences.