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 Evolution of the Immune System  posted by  duggu   on 12/8/2007  Add Courseware to favorites Add To Favorites  
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Danilova, Nadia, 7.345 Evolution of the Immune System, Spring 2005. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 07 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Phylogenetic tree figure showing evolution of immune system.

Phylogenetic tree figure showing the evolution of the immune system. (Image by Dr. Nadia Danilova.)

Course Highlights

This course features a complete bibliography of readings.

Course Description

In this course, evolutionary pathways that have led to the development of innate and adaptive immunity are analyzed, the conserved and unique features of the immune response from bacteria to higher vertebrates is traced, and factors, such as adaptive changes in pathogens that have shaped the evolution of immune system are identified.


This course includes contributions from Dr. Susann Beetz, a co-instructor for this course in 2003.




From early in evolution, organisms had to protect themselves from pathogens. Mechanisms for discriminating self from non-self evolved to accomplish this task, which launched a long history of host-pathogen co-evolution. The evolution of mechanisms for immune defense has resulted in a variety of strategies. Prokaryotes use restriction endonucleases, antimicrobial peptides, and RNA interference for self-protection. In multicellular organisms, specialized immune cells have evolved, capable of the phagocytosis of foreign cells as well as of self cells changed by infection or cancer. Defensive mechanisms based upon germline-encoded receptors constitute a system of innate immunity. In jawed vertebrates, this system is supplemented with a second system, known as adaptive immunity, which involves a specialized network of immune cells and organs. Adaptive immunity, in contrast to innate immunity, is based on the diversification of immune receptors and immunological memory in each individual. In this course, we will analyze evolutionary pathways that have led to the development of innate and adaptive immunity, trace both the conserved and unique features of the immune response from bacteria to higher vertebrates, and identify factors, such as adaptive changes in pathogens that have shaped the evolution of immune system.


The course will be a weekly seminar based upon primary literature on the topic of immunology. You will learn about evolution of immunological defence mechanisms. In addition, you will learn to critically read and discuss scientific papers and to evaluate data and methodologies.


Participation in all 13 classes is mandatory. If there is an emergency and you must miss a class, please talk to us so that we can arrange an appropriate make-up assignment (for instance a written summary of the two papers for that class).

During most of the classes two papers will be discussed. It is essential to read these papers in advance! In preparation for the discussion, you will write a discussion question for each article. Active participation in the discussions is expected. At the end of each class we will present background information for the understanding of the papers for next class.

There will be two additional assignments, one is written and one has both written and oral parts (see below).


Project 1

You will be given a scientific paper without its title and abstract. You will be asked to write an abstract (no more than 250 words) and a title.

Project 2

Toward the end of the semester, you will be asked to write a 3-page research proposal (double-spaced, font size 12) about one of the topics discussed at the seminar. The proposal will consist of a summary of the background, a testable hypothesis and a couple of experiments (with crucial controls) to test this hypothesis.

You will be asked to present your proposal during the last session.


The course will be graded pass/fail.




1 Introduction of Instructor and Students

Overview and Discussion of the Syllabus

Aim of the Course

How to Read a Scientific Paper

Literature and Database Searching

Introduction to Next Week's Topic
Part I: Defense Mechanisms Developed by Unicellular Organisms
2 Recognition of Foreign Nucleic Acids

The Restriction/Modification (R-M) System
3 Recognition of Foreign Nucleic Acids

4 Anti-microbial Peptides  
5 Altruistic Death  
Part II: The Transition to Multi-Cellularity Resulted in Cell Specialization
6 How are pathogens recognized by multi-cellular organisms?

Pattern Recognition and Missing Self
Assignment 1 due
7 How do multi-cellular organisms destroy pathogens?

8 How do multi-cellular organisms destroy pathogens?

Complement and Reactive Oxygen
Part III: An Evolutionary Milestone: The Origin of an Adaptive Immune System
9 Receptors of the Adaptive Immune System

Antigen Recognition by Cells of the Adaptive Immune System Involves the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC)
10 Clonal Selection and Immunological Memory  
11 How does the adaptive immune system interact with the innate immune system?  
12 Change or Die  
13 Student Oral Presentations

Course Evaluations
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