Researchers have found that violent sex acts in insects may actually aid in boosting their immunity.
This was one of the striking discoveries discussed at the recent conference on Innate Immunity and the Environment, organized by the European Science Foundation (ESF).
It was believed that only vertebrates have sophisticated adaptive immune systems protecting them for life against many pathogens after being infected by them just once. This theory has been revised in recent years and it turned out that many insects also have a form of immune memory that protects them against reinvasion by a pathogen they have previously encountered.
However, the conference was set up to discuss innate immunity involving generic response to pathogens, rather than specific actions based on memory of past infections as in adaptive immunity.
Yet the real highlight of the conference was the presentation of new research showing that insects and higher vertebrates, including humans, have much more similar immune systems than was thought according to the conference chair professor Paul Schmid-Hempel from the Institute of Integrative Biology in Zurich.
Schmid-Hempel said that its not just insect immune memories, but also how they recognize pathogens, that have close analogues in vertebrates,
The researchers discussed Insect innate immunity also in the context of sex, where it is the females' prerogative to distinguish between hostile pathogens and male sperm, which is also after all foreign tissue.
Schmid-Hempel indicated that for some insects sex is a violent act causing wounds that become infected and require a swift and powerful immune response.
"The topic was the traumatic insemination performed by some insect males, such as bedbugs, where the male injects sperm into the female through her body wall and certain sites," said Schmid-Hempel.
He added: "It has now been shown these sites are very immuno-active, and that this feature is essential to keep out infections that typically enter via the insemination act.
"In essence, it is about the general problem that insemination may also transfer disease and, at the same time, sperm is an antigen (non-self) for any female with all its potential immunological complications."
The conference was the first of two organised by the ESF on innate immunity's relationship with the environment, with the second staged for 2009.