How DNA Influences Our Immune System
DNA is often referred to as the building blocks of life. It contains within it the instructions through which all life manifests. Specifically, it directs and regulates the construction of the proteins necessary for the cell to perform all of its functions. On the human appearance level, we recognize its importance when we look at a child and try to decipher who got what facial features from which parent or relative. These inherited characteristics speak to one part of the genetic matrix while the other works in concert with the environment we inhabit. This interplay between our innate and adaptive genetic makeup defines everything about us. Nowhere is this more apparent than with our immunological ability to defend, heal and repair ourselves. Our immune system is an integration of these two innate and adaptive systems working in concert to keep us safe from illness and disease.
In the same way that we get certain physical characteristics from family, we also inherit specific susceptibility or resistance towards certain diseases from our family’s genetic predispositions. The innate immune system provides early defense against infections and also plays a key role in monitoring changes to our body’s homeostasis--it's also what is responsible for inflammatory responses. It essentially triggers the alarm and is the first on the scene to respond to foreign invaders. The innate immune system is what we are given at birth and is always general, or nonspecific, meaning anything that is identified as foreign or non-self is a target for the innate immune response. Immune cell types, processes, and proteins involved in innate immunity cell responses include dendritic cells, macrophages (phagocytic cells for phagocytosis), natural killer cells (NK cells), cytokines, and neutrophils.
Adaptive Immunity, also called specific or acquired immunity, recognizes and reacts to a large number of microbial and non-microbial substances, involving the MHC response. The defining characteristics of adaptive immunity are the ability to distinguish specific antigens, called specificity, and the ability to respond more vigorously to repeated exposures to the same specific pathogens, known as memory, and carried about my memory cells. Vaccines work by activating this immunity by exposing our body to a small, inactive amount of an infectious disease for it to remember to later provide us immunity against it. This immunity shows up after the innate system is unable to deal with a foreign invader in a more targeted approach. T lymphocytes (effectors, cytotoxic T cells, helper t cells), B lymphocytes (B cells), antigen-presenting cells, and antibodies are the key players here.
HOW THEY WORK TOGETHER
Innate and adaptive immune activation are components of an integrated system of defense in which numerous cells and molecules function cooperatively--it's the basis of immunology. The mechanisms of innate immunity provide effective initial defense against infections, especially with the involvement of leukocytes (i.e. white blood cells) in both systems. However, many pathogenic microbes have evolved to resist innate immunity, and their elimination requires the more powerful mechanisms of adaptive immunity. There are numerous connections between the innate and adaptive immune systems including T cell receptors (TCRs), pattern recognition receptors, and antigen receptors. The innate immune response to microbes stimulates adaptive immune responses and influences the nature of the adaptive responses. Conversely, adaptive immune responses often work by enhancing the protective mechanisms of innate immunity, making them more capable of effectively combating pathogenic microbes.
DNA TESTING + IMMUNITY
In recent years healthcare has been revolutionized by DNA testing. These tests can reveal our predispositions to certain conditions such as sickle cell, DMD (Duchene Muscular Dystrophy), breast and colon cancer, along with others.
A second series of DNA testing has also emerged under the umbrella of a field called epigenetics - the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. These changes are predicated on our lifestyle and environmental factors such as pollution, stress, nutrition, and fitness. Genetic testing tells you disease risk which you cannot change. Epigenetic testing, on the other hand, brings your DNA to life, combining your risk of long-term illness with actionable lifestyle and environmental factors you can change.
It’s an exciting time in the field of genetic research as AI and machine learning has allowed practitioners to discover more about our unique make-up to allow us to be in greater control of how we respond and prepare for illness and disease allowing us to live longer and healthier lives.