Evasion of the Immune System by Pathogens


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OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

It is important to keep in mind that although the immune system has evolved to be able to control many pathogens, pathogens themselves have evolved ways to evade the immune response. An example is Mycobactrium tuberculosis, which has evolved a complex cell wall that is resistant to the digestive enzymes of the macrophages that ingest them, and thus persists in the host, causing the chronic disease tuberculosis. Keep in mind, although it seems as if pathogens have a will of their own, they do not. All of these evasive “strategies” arose strictly by evolution, driven by selection.

Bacteria sometimes evade immune responses because they exist in multiple strains, such as different groups of Staphylococcus aureus. S. aureus is commonly found in minor skin infections, such as boils, and some healthy people harbor it in their nose. One small group of strains of this bacterium, however, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, has become resistant to multiple antibiotics and is essentially untreatable. Different bacterial strains differ in the antigens on their surfaces. The immune response against one strain (antigen) does not affect the other; thus, the species survives.

Another method of immune evasion is mutation. Because viruses’ surface molecules mutate continuously, viruses like influenza change enough each year that the flu vaccine for one year may not protect against the flu common to the next. New vaccine formulations must be derived for each flu season.

Genetic recombination—the combining of gene segments from two different pathogens—is an efficient form of immune evasion. For example, the influenza virus contains gene segments that can recombine when two different viruses infect the same cell. Recombination between human and pig influenza viruses led to the 2010 H1N1 swine flu outbreak.

Pathogens can produce immunosuppressive molecules that impair immune function, and there are several different types. Viruses are especially good at evading the immune response in this way, and many types of viruses have been shown to suppress the host immune response in ways much more subtle than the wholesale destruction caused by HIV.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology