Learning from Lampreys: An ancient immune system provides insights into our own
Lampreys are described as primitive predators, aggressive flesh feeders, and piston-tongued parasites. To watch a lamprey attach itself to the glass of an aquarium or dangle off the side of an unfortunate fish causes an involuntary shudder.
In the Great Lakes region, lampreys are viewed as fish-killing pests and an invasive species and are regularly poisoned to control their numbers. In Europe during the Middle Ages they were considered a delicacy.
But in immunologist Max Cooper’s Emory Vaccine Center lab, researchers see lampreys as windows into the distant past and biomedical treasure troves that may contain disease-fighting secrets from another eon.
Lampreys and their close cousins, hagfish—both jawless vertebrates—are early offshoots on the evolutionary tree, having diverged from jawed fish and sharks and, ultimately, humans, hundreds of millions of years ago.