Ecoimmunity: Immune tolerance by symmetric co-evolution

Uri Nevo*, Ehud Hauben

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


It is widely accepted that immune tolerance toward "self" is established by central and peripheral adaptations of the immune system. Mechanisms that have been demonstrated to play a role in the induction and maintenance of tolerance include thymic deletion of self-reactive T cells, peripheral T cell anergy and apoptosis, as well as thymic and peripheral induction of regulatory T cells. However, a large body of experimental findings cannot be rationalized solely based on adaptations of the immune system to its environment. Here we propose a new model termed Ecoimmunity, where the immune system and the tissue are viewed as two sides of a continuously active and co-evolving predator-prey system. Ecoimmunity views self-tolerance, not as an equilibrium in which autoimmunity is chronically suppressed, but as a symmetrical balanced conflict between the ability of immune cells to destroy tissue cells by numerous mechanisms, and the capacity of adapted tissue cells to avoid predation. This balance evolves during ontogeny, in parallel to immune adaptations, embryonic tissue cells adapt their phenotype to the corresponding immune activity by developing the ability to escape or modulate damaging local immune responses. This phenotypic plasticity of tissue cells is directed by epigenetic selection of gene expression pattern and cellular phenotype amidst an ongoing immune pressure. Thus, whereas some immune cells prey predominantly on pathogens and infected cells, self-reactive cells continuously prey on incompetent tissue cells that fail to express the adapted phenotype and resist predation. This model uses ecological generalization to reconcile current contradictory observations as well as classical enigmas related to both autoimmunity and to tolerance toward foreign tissues. Finally, it provides empirical predictions and alternative strategies toward clinical challenges.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)632-642
Number of pages11
JournalEvolution and Development
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2007
Externally publishedYes


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