Primate innate immune responses to bacterial and viral pathogens reveals an evolutionary trade-off between strength and specificity

Mohamed B.F. Hawash, Joaquin Sanz-Remón, Jean Christophe Grenier, Jordan Kohn, Vania Yotova, Zach Johnson, Robert E. Lanford, Jessica F. Brinkworth, Luis B. Barreiro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite their close genetic relatedness, apes and African and Asian monkeys (AAMs) differ in their susceptibility to severe bacterial and viral infections that are important causes of human disease. Such differences between humans and other primates are thought to be a result, at least in part, of interspecies differences in immune response to infection. However, because of the lack of comparative functional data across species, it remains unclear in what ways the immune systems of humans and other primates differ. Here, we report the whole-genome transcriptomic responses of ape species (human and chimpanzee) and AAMs (rhesus macaque and baboon) to bacterial and viral stimulation. We find stark differences in the responsiveness of these groups, with apes mounting a markedly stronger early transcriptional response to both viral and bacterial stimulation, altering the transcription of ∼40% more genes than AAMs. Additionally, we find that genes involved in the regulation of inflammatory and interferon responses show the most divergent early transcriptional responses across primates and that this divergence is attenuated over time. Finally, we find that relative to AAMs, apes engage a much less specific immune response to different classes of pathogens during the early hours of infection, up-regulating genes typical of antiviral and anti-bacterial responses regardless of the nature of the stimulus. Overall, these findings suggest apes exhibit increased sensitivity to bacterial and viral immune stimulation, activating a broader array of defense molecules that may be beneficial for early pathogen killing at the potential cost of increased energy expenditure and tissue damage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2015855118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number13
StatePublished - Mar 30 2021


  • Early immune responses to infection
  • Gram-negative bacteria
  • Immunodeficiency viruses
  • Pathogen-associated molecular patterns
  • Primate evolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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