Inspiration for Wild Immunity

The idea writing and posting the rambling tales of Wild Immunity came about on a trip to Innes National Park in South Australia. My wife Emily, a disease ecologist, and I were walking on scenic beach at Innes National Park and we found piles of coral and sponges washed up on the beach. As any good biologist will do, we started poking the dead animals and tried to see if we could learn anything and figure out how they ended up on the beach. The discussion ended up on the subject of the complement system, an aspect of the immune system that has been evolutionarily conserved from marine sponges to humans. The complement system is so effective at keeping animals alive that it has persisted for hundreds of millions of years (yes, it existed long before dinosaurs).

Into the Wild Immunity

Emily and I spend a lot of time camping, hiking, and running in wild places, and we almost always learn something new on our adventures. We have also been both students and teachers in outdoor education courses, and we have poignant memories from these courses. For us, discussions in natural environments stimulate comprehension and understanding, and ultimately the acquisition of knowledge, far better than sitting through a traditional lecture at school or university. Flipping over a rock and finding hidden snake will burn a memory into most people’s mind much better than seeing a picture of a snake in a PowerPoint presentation and then trying to furiously scribble notes as the instructor drones on. Finding a hidden snake could in turn lead to questions such as how does venom affect physiology, and how does the immune system combat the venom on a molecular level? These types of questions can open up a community discussion, and the adrenaline rush stimulated by the snake may help normally reserved students open up and actively engage in the conversation.

The rambling posts from Wild Immunity will cover any topic associated with how an organism defends itself from exploitation, and more importantly death. This will include a few highly technical molecular mechanisms that the immune system uses to kill pathogens, but will we will also cover many defenses that are not traditionally thought of as part of the immune system. Behavioral defenses are critical to survival, and are often easier to visualize and explain than a microscopic molecular defense. For example, the ability to determine that meat is rotten from the its smell rather than having to taste the meat is a simple behavioral defense that helps an organism avoid infection. A strong argument can be made that avoiding exposure to pathogens is better than inducing powerful cellular and molecular mechanisms to kill pathogens post-infection.

What’s ecology got do to with it?

The short answer is everything. No organism exists in a vacuum, so understanding how an organism interacts with its environment is critical to understanding immunity. A nice example of this is the story of the smallpox vaccine.

Smallpox was the scourge of the world for centuries and is estimated to have killed more than 300,000,000 million people in the 20th century, a number that far exceed the combined number of deaths from all of the wars in the 20th century. The life-saving smallpox vaccine was discovered not by doing experiments on laboratory mice, but instead was discovered by realizing that people that had been infected with the non-lethal coxpox virus were immune to the deadly smallpox virus. This discovery led to the modern vaccination era, and the term vaccination actually stems from the latin word for cow, vacca. The cowpox story is just one example of how an understanding of ecology, which is an organism’s interaction with their environment, and in this case was the observation that milkmaids interacted with cows and seemed to be protected from smallpox, can lead to discoveries that change the world. Indeed, many of the greatest discoveries in immunology and medicine were made not in the lab, but in a natural setting by astute people making observations of their environment.

We hope that the diverse tales of Wild Immunity will be entertaining, informative, help stimulate outside of the box thinking, and most importantly encourage people go into the wild and have their own adventures!