Trade-offs between acquired and innate immune defenses in humans

Thomas McDade*, Alexander V. Georgiev, Christopher W Kuzawa

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Immune defenses provide resistance against infectious disease that is critical to survival. But immune defenses are costly, and limited resources allocated to immunity are not available for other physiological or developmental processes. We propose a framework for explaining variation in patterns of investment in two important subsystems of anti-pathogen defense: innate (non-specific) and acquired (specific) immunity. The developmental costs of acquired immunity are high, but the costs of maintenance and activation are relatively low. Innate immunity imposes lower upfront developmental costs, but higher operating costs. Innate defenses are mobilized quickly and are effective against novel pathogens. Acquired responses are less effective against novel exposures, but more effective against secondary exposures due to immunological memory. Based on their distinct profiles of costs and effectiveness, we propose that the balance of investment in innate versus acquired immunity is variable, and that this balance is optimized in response to local ecological conditions early in development. Nutritional abundance, high pathogen exposure and low signals of extrinsic mortality risk during sensitive periods of immune development should all favor relatively higher levels of investment in acquired immunity. Undernutrition, low pathogen exposure, and high mortality risk should favor innate immune defenses. The hypothesis provides a framework for organizing prior empirical research on the impact of developmental environments on innate and acquired immunity, and suggests promising directions for future research in human ecological immunology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalEvolution, Medicine, and Public Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


  • Developmental origins of health and disease
  • Ecological immunology
  • Immune function
  • Inflammation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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