Does baseline innate immunity change with age? A multi-year study in great tits

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Abstract

Throughout their life animals progressively accumulate mostly detrimental changes in cells, tissues and their functions, causing a decrease in individual performance and ultimately an increased risk of death. The latter may be amplified if it also leads to a deterioration of the immune system which forms the most important protection against the permanent threat of pathogens and infectious diseases. Here, we investigated how four baseline innate immune parameters (natural antibodies, complement activity, concentrations of haptoglobin and concentrations of nitric oxide) changed with age in free-living great tits (Parus major). We applied both cross-sectional and longitudinal approaches as birds were sampled for up to three years of their lives. Three out of the four selected innate immune parameters were affected by age. However, the shape of the response curves differed strongly among the innate immune parameters. Natural antibody levels increased during early life until mid-age to decrease thereafter when birds aged. Complement activity was highest in young birds, while levels slightly decreased with increasing age. Haptoglobin levels on the other hand, showed a linear, but highly variable increase with age, while nitric oxide concentrations were unaffected by age. The observed differences among the four studied innate immune traits not only indicate the importance of considering several immune traits at the same time, but also highlight the complexity of innate immunity. Unraveling the functional significance of the observed changes in innate immunity is thus a challenging next step.

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