Rodent vs. Elephant: Does Size Impact Immunity?

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National Science Foundation grant supports USF researchers’ new study with Lowry Park Zoo

USF researchers, the College of Public Health’s Dr. Rays H.J. Jiang, will soon expand on their recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Zoology that finds an animal’s size and lifespan could impact how their immune system reacts to parasites. While the cost of an effective immune response is little studied, it could influence whether or not a species typically dies from a bacterial infection or spreads disease to other species, including humans.

Investigators involved in the National Science Foundation study include, from left: Lynn B. Martin, PhD, professor, USF Integrative Biology; Rays Jiang, PhD, assistant professor, USF Global Health; Laura Schoenle, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, USF Integrative Biology; and Ray Ball, DVM, Lowry Park Zoo. Not pictured: Cynthia Downs, PhD, assistant professor, Hamilton College Biology.


Co-principal investigators Lynn “Marty” Martin, PhD, University of South Florida, Department of Integrative Biology, and Rays H.J. Jiang, PhD, University of South Florida, Department of Global Health, along with principal investigator Cynthia Downs, PhD, Hamilton College, NY, were awarded a four-year $615,975 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the immune systems of more than 200 mammals ranging in size from rodent to elephant. They’ll conduct their research by gathering existing data from mammals at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo with the help of co-principal investigator Ray Ball, DVM,and colleagues from other zoos around the country.

“There has been growing concern that particular species are most prone to spilling infections into human populations, with bats, rodents, and primates being the most often implicated,” Dr. Martin said. “Our work makes the broadest and most ambitious effort to date to determine whether the size of an organism alone disposes it to be a source or sink of infection because of how its body size affects the architecture of its immune system.”

The researchers will study the immune systems of more than 200 mammals, including the African elephant, the world’s largest land animal.


“From our perspective, our project is one of the first ecological genomics studies in the world in the scope and precision, with hybrid rigor of ecological quantification and biological mechanisms,” Dr. Jiang said.

It’s already known that an animal’s size strongly influences its lifespan, how fast it burns calories and other factors. This study will reveal whether or not size also impacts immunity.

Story by Tina Meketa, USF University Communications and Marketing

Reposted from USF News