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In human defenses against disease, environment beats heredity, study of twins shows

Pfc. Lane Higson and Pfc. Casey Higson, identical twins serving in Iraq with the Enhanced Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. The twins, natives of Myrtle Beach, S.C., joined the Army together and have not separated since.I'm one of those people who've paid to have their genomes analyzed for the purpose of getting a handle on susceptibility to this or that disease as time goes by. So it was with great interest that I came across a new study of twins conducted by immunologist Mark Davis, PhD, and fellow Stanford investigators. The study, published in CELL, shows that our environment, more than our heredity, plays the starring role in determining the state of our immune system, the body’s primary defense against disease. This is especially true as we age.

Improving gene-sequencing technologies have focused attention on the role of genes in diseases. But the finding that the environment is an even greater factor in shaping our immune response should give pause to anyone who thinks a whole-genome test is going to predict the course of their health status over a lifetime.

“The idea in some circles has been that if you sequence someone’s genome, you can tell what diseases they’re going to have 50 years later,” Davis told me when I interviewed him for a news release I wrote on the study. But, he noted, the immune system has to be tremendously adaptable in order to cope with unpredictable episodes of infection, injury and tumor formation.

Davis, who heads Stanford's Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection, is worth taking seriously. He's made a number of major contributions to the field of immunology over the last 30 years or so.  (Not long ago, I wrote an article about one of those exploits for Stanford Medicine.)

To find out whether the tremendous differences observed between different people’s immune systems reflec tunderlying genetic differences or something else, Davis and his colleagues compared members of twin pairs to one another. Identical twins inherit the same genome, while fraternal twin pairs are no more alike genetically than regular siblings, on average sharing 50 percent of their genes. (Little-known fun factoid: The percentage can vary from 0 to 100, in principle, depending on the roll of the chromosomal dice. But it typically hovers pretty close to 50 percent, just as rolling real dice gives you a preponderance of 6s, 7s, and 8s. Think of a Bell curve.)

Because both types of twins share the same in utero environment and, usually, pretty close to the same childhood environment as well, they make great subjects for contrasting hereditary versus environmental influence. (If members of identical-twin pairs are found to be no more alike than members of fraternal-twin pairs with respect to the presence of some trait, that trait is considered to lack any genetic influence.)

In all, the researchers recruited 78 identical-twin pairs and 27 pairs of fraternal twins and drew blood from both members of each twin pair. That blood was hustled over to Stanford's Human Monitoring Center, which houses the latest immune-sleuthing technology under a single roof. There, the Stanford team applied sophisticated laboratory methods to the blood samples to measure more than 200 distinct immune-system cell types, substances and activities.

Said Davis: "We found that in most cases - including your reaction to a standard influenza vaccine and other types of immune responsiveness - there is little or no genetic influence at work, and most likely the environment and your exposure to innumerable microbes is the major driver.”

It makes sense. A healthy human immune system has to continually adapt to its encounters with hostile pathogens, friendly gut microbes, nutritional components and more.

“The immune system has to think on its feet,” Davis said.

Previously: Knight in lab: In days of yore, postdoc armed with quaint research tools found immunology's Holy Grail, Deja vu: Adults' immune systems "remember" microscopic monsters they've never seen before and Immunology escapes from the mouse trap

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