Trade-off between growth and immune function: a meta-analysis of selection experiments

P.J. van der Most, B. de Jong, H.K. Parmentier, S. Verhulst

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169 Citations (Scopus)


1. Evidence suggests that developing and maintaining an effective immune system may be costly and that an organism has to make a trade-off between immune function and other fitness-enhancing traits. To test for a trade-off between growth and immune function we carried out a meta-analysis of data from lines of poultry that had been divergently selected for either growth (body mass) or an aspect of immune function. This is relevant to our understanding of the evolution of immune function, but also because the increased prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and calls to restrict the use of antibiotics in the agricultural industry has made immune function of livestock an important theme. Has the selection of animals for rapid growth unintentionally resulted in reduced immune function? 2. The lines selected for increased growth all showed a strong and significant decrease in immune function (standard difference in means = 0·8; P <0·001). No difference was found between the effects on cellular or humoral immunity, although there were few data on cellular immunity, and hence this deserves more study. However, in the lines selected for immune function the effect on growth was heterogeneous and overall it was close to zero. 3. Testing for publication bias revealed that the effect of selection for body mass on immune function was robust. However, there was considerable heterogeneity in both body mass and immune function data. The heterogeneity in the growth-selected lines cannot be accounted for by gender or species: the only turkey line had an effect size between that of the two chicken lines. 4. In conclusion, we found that selection for growth does indeed compromise immune function, but selection for immune function did not consistently affect growth. This is in agreement with the supposition that the costs of growth are large relative to the costs of immune function, and on a practical level this suggests that it may be possible to breed animals for increased growth without loss of immune function.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)74-80
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • newcastle-disease virus
  • increased body-weight
  • random-bred strain
  • sheep erythrocytes
  • antibody-response
  • pasteurella-multocida
  • life-history
  • physiological-responses
  • ecological immunology
  • evolutionary ecology

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