Department of Environmental Immunology
Graphic: ARTKOLCHOSE / UFZ

Department of Environmental Immunology


The incidence of allergies and other chronic inflammatory diseases has increased dramatically over the last years. This is attributed at least in part to environmental factors which contribute to defective regulation of important signal pathways and may thereby contribute to disease. The pre- and perinatal period is extremely sensitive for environmental cues. The identification of potentially dangerous environmental factors, the window of exposure related to disease outcome, the extent of their impact and the underlying mechanisms are not well understood. In our Department, we seek to find answers to these highly relevant question with special focus in immune cells.

A comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms triggered by environmental factors to initiate, potentiate or perpetuate a disease is urgently needed in order to develop suitable strategies for diagnosis, therapy and especially individual prevention. For this, it is particularly important to consider the whole chain of incidents: starting from individual complex exposure to diverse environmental stress factors over their influence on cellular and molecular pathways to the complex effects on the entire organism.

The time in the maternal womb is a critical stage for the development of an individuum and the placenta plays a superordinate role during this period. This unique organ of fetal origin represents the feto-maternal symbiosis. It transports blood and nutrients from the mother to the fetus and secretes hormones that support pregnancy and modulate the maternal immune system to tolerate the semiallogeneic fetus and support fetal well-being. The maternal adaptive immune system is essential for the development of tolerance towards the fetus during pregnancy and for maintaining the immunological balance between mother and child. The maternal innate immune system primarily overtakes tasks in the tissue remodelling and angiogenesis so that the placenta can work at its maximal potential and thus supply the fetus with sufficient nutrients. Not only the placenta is a target for environmental chemicals acting as a depot for substances that can be further passed through the fetus but also both arms of the immune system can be negatively affected by environmental chemicals, further leading to dysregulations and deviations of normal development. The effects of these dysregulations can be seen years later, even in adulthood. We address the impact of environmental stressors including environmental chemicals in sensitive time windows by means of population-based cohort studies, in vitro and in vivo models. Our population-based cohort studies are LISAplus Study, a multicentric German birth cohort, and the LINA Study, our own Mother-Child-cohort. Using samples and information obtained from these cohorts, we establish associations between environmental exposure and disease outcomes. If there are indications from the cohort studies of disease risks caused by certain chemicals or pollutants, cell-based, complex vitro models are further designed and employed to confirm the association, elucidate the underlying molecular mechanisms and to identify dysregulated signal pathways. In addition, we use state-of-the-art ´in vivo models to investigate the effects of environmental factors alone and in combination with other stressors and how they contribute to disease pathogenesis.

The identification of unhealthy environmental impacts and the understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms that contribute to disease onset or perpetuation build the scientific basis for the development of new, more efficient diagnostic and therapeutic approaches as well as individual based prevention strategies. Our focus on how environmental chemicals affect health, we support the UFZ strategy of an integrated chemical risk assessment regarding risks for humans and the ecosystem.

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