Effects of immune challenge on expression of life-history and immune trait expression in sexually reproducing metazoans - A meta-analysis

M. Nystrand, D. K. Dowling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Life-history theory predicts a trade-off between investment into immune defence and other fitness-related traits. Accordingly, individuals are expected to upregulate their immune response when subjected to immune challenge. However, this is predicted to come at the expense of investment into a range of other traits that are costly to maintain, such as growth, reproduction and survival. Currently, it remains unclear whether the magnitude of such costs, and trade-offs involving immune investment and other traits, manifests consistently across species and sexes. To address this, we conducted a meta-analysis to investigate how changes in sex, ontogenetic stage and environmental factors shape phenotypic trait expression following an immune challenge. Results: We explored the effects of immune challenge on three types of traits across sexually reproducing metazoans: life-history, morphological and proximate immune traits (235 effect sizes, 53 studies, 37 species [21 invertebrates vs. 16 vertebrates]). We report a general negative effect of immune challenge on survival and reproduction, a positive effect on immune trait expression, but no effect on morphology or development time. The negative effects of immune challenge on reproductive traits and survival were larger in females than males. We also report a pronounced effect of the immune treatment agent used (e.g. whether the treatment involved a live pathogen or not) on the host response to immune challenge, and find an effect of mating status on the host response in invertebrates. Conclusion: These results suggest that costs associated with immune deployment following an immune challenge are context-dependent and differ consistently in their magnitude across the sexes of diverse taxonomic lineages. We synthesise and discuss the outcomes in the context of evolutionary theory on sex differences in life-history and highlight the need for future studies to carefully consider the design of experiments aimed at disentangling the costs of immune deployment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number135
Number of pages17
JournalBMC Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2020


  • Context-dependence
  • Immune challenge
  • Life-history trade-offs
  • Phenotype
  • Sex-specific
  • Sexually dimorphic

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