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Background and objectives

Among placental mammals, females undergo immunological shifts during pregnancy to accommodate the fetus (i.e. fetal tolerance). Fetal tolerance has primarily been characterized within post-industrial populations experiencing evolutionarily novel conditions (e.g. reduced pathogen exposure), which may shape maternal response to fetal antigens. This study investigates how ecological conditions affect maternal immune status during pregnancy by comparing the direction and magnitude of immunological changes associated with each trimester among the Tsimane (a subsistence population subjected to high pathogen load) and women in the USA.


Data from the Tsimane Health and Life History Project (N = 935) and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (N = 1395) were used to estimate population-specific effects of trimester on differential leukocyte count and C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of systemic inflammation.


In both populations, pregnancy was associated with increased neutrophil prevalence, reduced lymphocyte and eosinophil count and elevated CRP. Compared to their US counterparts, pregnant Tsimane women exhibited elevated lymphocyte and eosinophil counts, fewer neutrophils and monocytes and lower CRP. Total leukocyte count remained high and unchanged among pregnant Tsimane women while pregnant US women exhibited substantially elevated counts, resulting in overlapping leukocyte prevalence among all third-trimester individuals.

Conclusions and implications

Our findings indicate that ecological conditions shape non-pregnant immune baselines and the magnitude of immunological shifts during pregnancy via developmental constraints and current trade-offs. Future research should investigate how such flexibility impacts maternal health and disease susceptibility, particularly the degree to which chronic pathogen exposure might dampen inflammatory response to fetal antigens.

Lay Summary

This study compares immunological changes associated with pregnancy between the Tsimane (an Amazonian subsistence population) and individuals in the USA. Results suggest that while pregnancy enhances non-specific defenses and dampens both antigen-specific immunity and parasite/allergy response, ecological conditions strongly influence immune baselines and the magnitude of shifts during gestation.


This article was originally published in Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, volume 2020, issue 1, in 2020.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.