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The characterization of a completely novel adaptive immune system (AIS) in jawless vertebrates (hagfish and lampreys) presents an excellent opportunity for exploring similarities and differences in design principles. It also highlights a somewhat neglected question: Why did vertebrates, representing only 5 % of all animals, evolve a system as complex as an AIS twice, whereas invertebrates failed to do so? A number of theories have been presented in answer to this question. However, these theories either fail to explain why invertebrates would not similarly develop an AIS and are confounded by issues of causality, or have been challenged by more recent findings.Instead of identifying a selective pressure that would drive the development of an AIS, we hypothesise that invertebrates failed to develop an AIS because of the evolutionary constraints imposed by these animals' physiological context. In particular, we argue that a number of vascular innovations in vertebrates allowed the effective implementation of an AIS. A lower blood volume allowed for a higher antibody titer (i.e., less 'diluted' antibody concentration), rendering these immune effectors more cost-effective. In addition, both a high circulatory velocity and the ability of endothelium to coordinate immune cell trafficking promote 'epitope sampling'. Collectively, these innovations allowed the effective implementation of AIS in vertebrates.The hypothesis posits that a number of innovations to the vascular system provided the release from constraints which allowed the implementation of an AIS. However, this hypothesis would be refuted by phylogenetic analysis demonstrating that the AIS preceded these vascular innovations. The hypothesis also suggests that vascular performance would have an impact on the efficacy of an AIS, thus predicting a correlation between the vascular parameters of a species and its relative investment in AIS. The contribution of certain vascular innovations in augmenting immune functionality of an AIS can be tested by modelling the effect of different vascular parameters on AIS efficacy.The hypothesis not only explains the immunological dimorphism between vertebrates and invertebrates but also brings to attention the fact that immunity is dependent on more than just an immune system.

Original publication




Journal article


Biology direct

Publication Date





Department of Physiological Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Private Bag X1, Matieland, Stellenbosch, 7600, South Africa.


Endothelium, Immune System, Animals, Vertebrates, Invertebrates, Adaptive Immunity, Biological Evolution