A review of the "ontogeny" of the human immune system carries the implication that this maturation process is genetically programmed and unalterable. In fact, environmental influences affect the development of the human immune system even during gestation, such that insult to, pathogenic exposure of, and immunologic responses by the mother can perturb the immune system of the fetus. This reactivity underscores the inherent responsiveness of the body's immune system to its environment even at the earliest stages. Therefore, this chapter's title refers to the development of the human immune system to incorporate the responsive nature of an ontologically emerging immune system.
A core of literature on developmental studies of the immune system dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Much of the human data are related to fundamental observations using research animals—particularly rodents—for obvious ethical reasons. Information on human immune system development stems from either functionality studies performed using umbilical cord blood collected at birth after a full-term pregnancy (>37 weeks gestation) (Holt and Jones 2000) or the more clinically related studies analyzing susceptibility to disease due to immune system insult from genetic defects or environmental trauma. A picture emerges from these studies of an intricate developmental system of cells, their cell-surface receptors, and the soluble factors of a specific organ environment that enable the body's defense system to respond quickly, specifically, and with memory towards immunologic threats and not toward self-antigens. An awareness of how the immune system develops during ontogeny and the factors influencing maturation of the body's defense system is crucial to understanding the impact of environmental factors such as toxicants, pathogens, or even vaccines.
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