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Status alters immune function in macaques
Rhesus macaques experience variable levels of stress on the basis of their position in the social hierarchy. To examine how stress affects immune function, Snyder-Mackler et al. manipulated the social status of individual macaques (see the Perspective by Sapolsky). Social status influenced the immune system at multiple levels, from immune cell numbers to gene expression, and altered signaling pathways in a model of response to infection. Macaques possess a plastic and adaptive immune response wherein social subordination promotes antibacterial responses, whereas high social status promotes antiviral responses.
Social status is one of the strongest predictors of human disease risk and mortality, and it also influences Darwinian fitness in social mammals more generally. To understand the biological basis of these effects, we combined genomics with a social status manipulation in female rhesus macaques to investigate how status alters immune function. We demonstrate causal but largely plastic social status effects on immune cell proportions, cell type–specific gene expression levels, and the gene expression response to immune challenge. Further, we identify specific transcription factor signaling pathways that explain these differences, including low-status–associated polarization of the Toll-like receptor 4 signaling pathway toward a proinflammatory response. Our findings provide insight into the direct biological effects of social inequality on immune function, thus improving our understanding of social gradients in health.