Not by structures alone: Can the immune system recognize microbial functions? by G. Greslehner



A central question for immunology is: what does the immune system recognize and according to which principles does this kind of recognition work? Immunology has been dominated by the idea of recognizing molecular structures and triggering an appropriate immune response when facing non-self or danger. Recently, characterizations in terms of function have turned out to be more conserved and explanatory in microbiota research than taxonomic composition for understanding microbiota-host interactions. Starting from a conceptual analysis of the notions of structure and function, I raise the title question whether it is possible for the immune system to recognize microbial functions. I argue that this is indeed the case, making the claim that some function-associated molecular patterns are not indicative of the presence of certain taxa (‘‘who is there’’) but of biochemical activities and effects (‘‘what is going on’’). In addition, I discuss case studies which show that there are immunological sensors that can directly detect microbial activities, irrespective of their specific structural manifestation. At the same time, the discussed account puts the causal role notions of function on a more realist and objective basis.

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