Immune systems are of pivotal importance to any living organism on Earth, as they protect the organism against deleterious effects of viral infections. Though the current knowledge about these systems is still biased towards the immune response in vertebrates, some studies have focused on the identification and characterization of components of invertebrate antiviral immune systems. Two classic model organisms, the insect Drosophila melanogaster and the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, were instrumental in the discovery of several important components of the innate immune system, such as the Toll-like receptors and the RNA interference pathway. However, these two model organisms provide only a limited view of the evolutionary history of the immune system, as they both are ecdysozoan protostomes. Recent functional studies in non-classic models such as unicellular holozoans (for example, choanoflagellates), lophotrochozoans (for example, oysters) and cnidarians (for example, sea anemones) have added crucial information for understanding the evolution of antiviral systems, as they revealed unexpected ancestral complexity. This Review aims to summarize this information and present the ancestral nature of the antiviral immune response in animals. We also discuss lineage-specific adaptations and future perspectives for the comparative study of the innate immune system that are essential for understanding its evolution.
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We thank S. Moineau and A. Culley (Université Laval) for advice on the diversity of DNA and RNA phages.
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