Insects are the most diverse and successful animals, encompassing the largest number of described metazoan species, many of them represented by huge numbers of individuals that often exhibit extensive within-species polymorphisms at the molecular and morphological levels. With the exception of the oceans, insects have successfully colonized nearly all habitats on the planet. Sharing these diverse environments with bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites, the insects provide fertile ground to study how innate immunity has evolved an assortment of strategies to recognize and combat multiple challenges. In the pioneering studies of innate immunity, the discovery of key features shared by the vertebrate and insect immune systems, such as the Toll-like receptors, led to the general concept that the innate immune system is highly conserved. However, increasingly available sequenced insect genomes have facilitated the application of novel comparative approaches to elucidating the biology and understanding the evolution of immunity. Indeed, comparative genomics have revealed a much finer and intriguing picture: conservation of core features of this system is accompanied by diversified inputs and outputs, possibly reflecting continuous readjustments between accommodation with and rejection of insect pathogens. Dissecting the evolutionary processes that have shaped their immune repertoires may illuminate how insects are able to face the wide variety of challenges in their diverse habitats. Conversely, experimental identification of novel immune components in insects may lead to a better understanding of the origins of immune functions in all organisms.
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