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Wild Scottish sheep could help explain differences in immunity
Date:10/28/2010

Strong immunity may play a key role in determining long life, but may do so at the expense of reduced fertility, a Princeton University study has concluded.

An 11-year study of a population of wild sheep located on a remote island off the coast of Scotland that gauged the animals' susceptibility to infection may give new insight into why some people get sicker than others when exposed to the same illness.

The answer to this medical puzzle may lie in deep-rooted differences in how animals survive and reproduce in the wild, according to the study, which was led by Princeton ecologist Andrea Graham and published in the Oct. 29 issue of Science. The research revealed that the sheep population over time has maintained a balance of those with weaker and stronger levels of immunity and fertility.

"This is a groundbreaking study that to my mind will change our whole understanding of the immunoheterogenity in animal populations," said Peter Hudson, the Willaman Professor of Biology and director of life sciences at Penn State University. "Graham and colleagues show beautifully the tradeoffs in the immune system as a balance that maximizes reproductive output."

Graham, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton who also is on the faculty of the University of Edinburgh, led the study of wild Soay sheep on the remote island of Hirta in the St. Kilda archipelago, about 100 miles west of the Scottish mainland. The scientists tested the animals for levels of antibodies, natural molecules produced by the sheep's immune systems to fend off infections such as influenza or those caused by parasitic worms.

The sheep whose blood contained the most antibodies lived the longest, the researchers found. These animals also were most likely to survive harsh winters. However, they failed to produce as many offspring each spring as other sheep. Sheep with lower levels of antibodies tended to die earlier, they
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Contact: Kitta MacPherson
kittamac@princeton.edu
609-258-5729
Princeton University
Source:Eurekalert  

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