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Cod’s surprising immune system

Norwegian research has revealed that the immune system of cod is very different from other fish and from mammals – a discovery that may shed light on the human immune system as well.

The discovery was made after scientists sequenced the entire cod genome.

Lacks part of immune system
Up to now, scientists have believed that all higher animals (including fish) share the same basic type of immune system as humans, assumed to have stemmed from a single common origin. Now it appears that cod are lacking in that part of the immune system that normally combats infection from bacteria and parasites.

“This was a very surprising finding,” says Professor Kjetill S. Jakobsen, who headed the cod-sequencing project. “Conventional wisdom holds that cod should be dead. Yet it is very much alive – a very successful species, in fact, quite widespread in the northern seas.”

Alternative immunity
One of the genes that cod lack, known as MHC II, is responsible for detecting hostile microorganisms and initiating the immune response to fight off bacteria and parasites. Cod, however, have developed an entirely different way of battling bacteria and other infections. To compensate for a lack of MHC II, cod have a higher number of another gene, MHC I. Other parts of the cod immune system are different as well.

“This is a milestone in Norwegian biological research that will have both a social and an economic impact,” emphasises Professor Jakobsen.

The results from the project have recently been published in the journal Nature.

New light on autoimmune disorders
“The unique immune system of cod gives us a new perspective on the human immune system as well,” asserts Professor Jakobsen. “This discovery could also provide new insight into how to combat autoimmune disorders such as psoriasis, asthma and allergies.”

The sequencing of the cod genome was hosted and coordinated by the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), based at the Department of Biology, University of Oslo. Activities were carried out in collaboration with other Norwegian universities and with international research institutes in Norway and abroad.

Important for aquaculture industry
With the entire cod genome sequenced, scientists are able to identify genetic variations among individual cod. This will enhance their understanding of not only the immune system but also traits such as growth rate, sexual maturation, tolerance for temperature fluctuations, and oxygen uptake.

This kind of information will benefit both the aquaculture and fisheries industries. Fish farmers are looking to selectively breed cod that is adapted to production conditions – fish that are both resistant to disease and an attractive commercial product. Additionally, vaccines can now be developed specifically for cod.

“The challenge now,” says Anne Kjersti Fahlvik, Executive Director of the Research Council’s Division for Innovation, “is to realise the true potential of detailed knowledge about the cod genome. This should be approached as a joint effort between the aquaculture industry and the relevant research communities.”

Funded under the Research Council
“The findings of Professor Jakobsen and his colleagues and partners are a prime example of how a research group can make excellent use of a number of funding instruments offered by the Research Council,” states Ms Fahlvik.

Funding under the Research Council’s programme on Functional Genomics in Norway (FUGE) over the past 10 years has helped Norway develop an internationally respected biotechnology research community. In addition, the gene sequencing group has received NOK 20 million in funding for infrastructure under the Research Council, and the project’s host institution, CEES, has status as a Research Council Centre of Excellence.

“The fact that Norwegian research groups have become key international players in a high-tech field such as gene sequencing is confirmation that we have made the right investments in biotechnology research funding in recent years,” says Ms Fahlvik.

The research team
The project is lead by Prof. Kjetill S. Jakobsen, and has been carried out by his team (CEES, University of Oslo, chaired by Professor Nils Chr. Stenseth) in collaboration with national and international research groups:

- Centre for Integrative Genetics (CIGENE), University of Life Sciences, Ås, Norway
- Computational Biology Unit (CBU), University of Bergen, Norway
- Department of Biology, Institute for Marine Research, University of Bergen
- Nofima Marin, Norway
- University of Nordland, Norway
- Department for Molecular Biotechnology, University of Tromsø, Norway
- 454/ Roche (USA)
- Max Planck Institute (Germany)
- The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (GB)