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Multicellularity evolved well before 600 million years ago, and all multicellular animals have evolved since then with the need to protect against pathogens. There is no reason to expect their immune systems to be any less sophisticated than ours. The vertebrate system, based on rearranging immunoglobulin-superfamily domains, appears to have evolved partly as a result of chance insertion of RAG genes by horizontal transfer. Remarkably sophisticated systems for expansion of immunological repertoire have evolved in parallel in many groups of organisms. Vaccination of invertebrates against commercially important pathogens has been empirically successful, and suggests that the definition of an adaptive and innate immune system should no longer depend on the presence of memory and specificity, since these terms are hard to define in themselves. The evolution of randomly-created immunological repertoire also carries with it the potential for generating autoreactive specificities and consequent autoimmune damage. While invertebrates may use systems analogous to ours to control autoreactive specificities, they may have evolved alternative mechanisms which operate either at the level of individuals-within-populations rather than cells-within-individuals, by linking self-reactive specificities to regulatory pathways and non-self-reactive to effector pathways.

Original publication




Journal article


Autoimmun Rev

Publication Date





643 - 647


Adaptive Immunity, Animals, Biological Evolution, Humans, Immune System