Mafia Wars

An increasing amount of data is showing that the cellular battle between pathogens and hosts needs much more than a simple military metaphor to describe it—think undercover infiltration, front organizations, and forced suicide.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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May 31, 2010
©Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images / George Silk

When searching for an appropriate description of the mammalian immune system, the vast majority of scientists settle on the metaphor of a war. It’s a battle scene, with the foot soldiers of the immune system (e.g., killer T cells) battling the bacterial or viral particles in an open field (the host’s body). Painting a picture in such strong terms is a good way to attract attention (and funding), and in many ways, it is a good fit—one paper I stumbled on as a graduate student that elegantly modeled the conflict generated nearly identical equations to those used in traditional models of warfare, which predict that military losses are proportional to the size of enemy forces.

Over the last several years, however, scientists have begun to realize that the molecular interactions between a pathogen and its host are quite a bit...

 

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