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Keywords:

  • ecological immunity;
  • male-female coevolution;
  • sexual selection;
  • sexual dimorphism;
  • sexual antagonism;
  • sex-specific selection

Females in many taxa experience postmating activation of their immune system, independently of any genital trauma or pathogenic attack arising from male-female genital contact. This response has always been interpreted as a product of natural selection as it either prepares the female immune system for antigens arising from an implanted embryo (in the case of placental mammals), or is a “pre-emptive strike” against infection or injury acquired during mating. While the first hypothesis has empirical support, the second is not entirely satisfactory. Recently, studies that have experimentally dissected the postmating responses of Drosophila melanogaster females point to a different explanation: male reproductive peptides/proteins that have evolved in response to postmating male-male competition are directly responsible for activating particular elements of the female immune system. Thus, in a broad sense, males may be said to be immunogenic to females. Here, we discuss a possible direct role of sexual selection/sexual conflict in immune system evolution, in contrast to indirect trade-offs with other life-history traits, presenting the available evidence from a range of taxa and proposing ways in which the competing hypotheses could be tested. The major implication of this review is that immune system evolution is not only a product of natural selection but also that sexual selection and potentially sexual conflict enforces a direct selective pressure. This is a significant shift, and will compel researchers studying immune system evolution and ecological immunity to look beyond the forces generated by parasites and pathogens to those generated by the male ejaculate.