Recent advances in technology, particularly with respect to computing power and molecular biology techniques, provide unprecedented research opportunities that once would have just been interesting “thought” exercises. The technological advances have begun to remove barriers such as logistical constraints and lack of species-specific reagents. Despite revolutionary new tools, many long-standing gaps in our understanding of the immune system persist. Supposed cures for cancers and infectious diseases are discovered almost daily in mouse models, yet rarely do these discoveries translate to effective treatments for human or veterinary medicine. By minimizing variation controlled lab studies can precisely map immunological pathways and identify cause and effect. However, often these studies result in treatments that are specific to only a few rodent strains and rarely relevant in the genetic and environmental complexities of the real world.
An effective but largely unrealized complement to traditional immunology is to embrace natural variation in genes and the environment by studying animals in natural settings. These “wild immunology” studies can provide insights into ancient immunological defences and the evolution of the immune system, and has the potential to drive innovation for human and veterinary medicine. The explosion of published genomes from alpaca (Vicugna pacos) to zebra fish (Danio rerio) and the plummeting cost of genome and transcriptome sequencing facilitates the development of species-specific reagents that makes it no longer necessary to focus on the few well-characterized model organisms.
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