Animals are continuously exposed to the environment. This is true for both food and companion animals and wildlife. Obviously, microbes and toxins present in the environment continuously activate the immune system, but also dietary and airborne components, and physical, mechanical and social stressors affect the animal, which may result in an activated immune response towards the stressor, or a modulated (enhanced or decreased) immune response due to the stressor. Animals respond to infectious challenges with natural (innate) and/or specific (adaptive) immune reactions. Within the immune system, adaptation rests on memory (specific immune system), refractory responses (innate immune system), or regulation (both systems) to keep the immune response within functional optimal limits. If not, then the animal may suffer from infectious diseases (in-appropriate immunity) or auto-immunity/hypersensitivity (exaggerated immunity) which may result into disease, death or decreased welfare and production. Within our group we study whether and how individuals adapt to unfavorable conditions (cold, heat, lack of food, infections), and whether or how we can help the animal to adapt to unfavorable conditions. With respect to the first, we study the effects of exposure to microbes (bacteria and parasites) or parts thereof (bacterial toxins, dust) in the diet or airborne on the innate immune system at early life, and the response thereafter at later life, with or without simultaneous climatic or social stress. With respect to the second, specific components are added to the diet (probiotics), or vaccination protocols are designed (adding danger signals) to strengthen the immune competence of animals during moments of stress or challenge. Since we have chickens selected for a long period of time for a particular type of immune response we can study genotype by environment interactions together with geneticists as well. Finally, we are interested in the inheritance of immunity via epigenetic mechanisms. Thus factors that enhance or decrease transfer of information from the mother to the newborn (for instance via the milk or the egg) are identified, in order to ensure an optimal functioning and maturation of the neonatal immune system.

Topics of interest:

  • Humoral components of innate immunity: natural antibodies, natural auto-antibodies and complement, and their role in resistance to infection, activation of specific immune responses in chickens, pigs, cattle and metaboic diseases
  • Climate and hygienic stress at an early life stage and their effects (adaptation) ater on
  • Social stress: welfare (behavior, coping styles) and immune competence in poultry and pigs
  • Priobiotics: their role in immune activation and maturation of neonatal mucosal immunity in the chicken
  • Identification of genes underlying specific and innate immunity in poultry
  • Identification of genes underlying specific and innate immunity in poultry
  • Husbandry (conventional, free range, wild life) conditions and immune responses of birds
  • Autoimmunity in healthy animals