The extent to which organisms can protect themselves from disease depends on both the immune defenses they maintain and the pathogens they face. At the same time, immune systems are shaped by the antigens they encounter, both over ecological and evolutionary time. Ecological immunologists often recognize these interactions, yet ecological immunology currently lacks major efforts to characterize the environmental, host-independent, antigenic pressures to which all animals are exposed. Failure to quantify relevant diseases and pathogens in studies of ecological immunology leads to contradictory hypotheses. In contrast, including measures of environmental and host-derived commensals, pathogens, and other immune-relevant organisms will strengthen the field of ecological immunology. In this article, we examine how pathogens and other organisms shape immune defenses and highlight why such information is essential for a better understanding of the causes of variation in immune defenses. We introduce the concept of “operative protection” for understanding the role of immunologically relevant organisms in shaping immune defense profiles, and demonstrate how the evolutionary implications of immune function are best understood in the context of the pressures that diseases and pathogens bring to bear on their hosts. We illustrate common mistakes in characterizing these immune-selective pressures, and provide suggestions for the use of molecular and other methods for measuring immune-relevant organisms.
- microbial communities
- molecular techniques