top of page

Immune Function and Disease Risk in Cetaceans

The world's oceans and coastal habitats are in a period of dramatic change. Marine and estuarine species are faced with new emerging challenges that require integrated ecosystem level studies to understand and mitigate the more pressing threats to ecosystem function and species survival.


We are conducting a broad array of research to improve our understanding of the genetic aspects of the immune response in cetaceans that is providing us with critical insights into the determinants of individual health and fitness and population viability, key components of species resilience.

For more information on our research in this field, please read on...

beluga whales
pilot whale stranding - 2012 - GOCC.jpg
20100107S10-0027_500x215 labeled.jpg

Currently, our collaborators and supporters include:

WhalePlate - HBOIF credit 2018.png
DolphinPlate - HBOIF credit 2018.png

So why does genetic diversity matter?
Low genetic diversity is associated with decreased fitness and increased risk of extinction.

Immunocompetence is an individual's ability to produce a normal immune response post antigenic exposure. We are constantly exposed to various pathogens, especially in changing environments. The ability to recognize pathogenic proteins and mount an effective immune response is a never ending evolutionary 'arms race' between host and pathogen.

MHC immune cascade

What is the MHC?


The Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) is central to the vertebrate immune system. It is the immunologically most important complex of genes determining a population's ability to detect and combat pathogens. 

It is the system of recognition and presentation that initiates the immune cascade

It responds to pathogens by recognizing non-self peptides and determines disease susceptibility and/or resistance at the genetic level.

We are concerned that habitat degradation and ecosystem change in our local waters is creating new pathogenic threats to whales and dolphins essentially changing the rules of the game.

The evolutionary arms race:

We partnered with Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in applying genomic and proteomic approaches to understanding susceptibility and resistance to pathogen infection in whales and dolphins in order to better manage disease risk in wild populations. 


NEED: We need detailed information on the capability of different populations to mount effective immune responses to emerging pathogenic threats in order to craft effective mitigation policy. 

CHALLENGE: to develop molecular methods that efficiently assess the ability of individual dolphins and whales, as well as separate populations of both, to recognize pathogens and trigger the immune cascade. 

SOLUTIONWe are using genomic and proteomic approaches to: 

(1) investigate patterns of diversity in the promoter and peptide binding regions of the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), a family of genes involved in antigen recognition in mammals. 

(2) characterize the peptide proteins recognized by the MHC and determine their likely origins. 

We published a series of papers in PloS one that characterize MHC diversity in whales and dolphins, 

Florida and the Indian River Lagoon system

including bottlenose dolphins from the Indian River Lagoon and adjacent Atlantic waters (right). 

Future work will focus on developing risk models at both the individual and population levels. 

For the first time in a non-model organism, we identify pathogen species likely recognized by individual MHC alleles. 

bottom of page