The host-protective immune response to infection with gastrointestinal (GI) nematodes involves a range of interacting processes that begin with recognition of the parasite's antigens and culminate in an inflammatory reaction in the intestinal mucosa. Precisely which immune effectors are responsible for the loss of specific worms is still not known although many candidate effectors have been proposed. However, it is now clear that many different genes regulate the response and that differences between hosts (fast or strong versus slow or weak responses) can be explained by allelic variation in crucial genes associated with the gene cascade that accompanies the immune response and/or genes encoding constitutively expressed receptor/signalling molecules. Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes have been recognized for some time as decisive in controlling immunity, and evidence that non-MHC genes are equally, if not more important in this respect has also been available for two decades. Nevertheless, whilst the former have been mapped in mice, only two candidate loci have been proposed for non-MHC genes and relatively little is known about their roles. Now, with the availability of microsatellite markers, it is possible to exploit linkage mapping techniques to identify quantitative trait loci (QTL) responsible for resistance to GI nematodes. Four QTL for resistance to Heligmosomoides polygyrus, and additional QTL affecting faecal egg production by the worms and the accompanying immune responses, have been identified. Fine mapping and eventually the identification of the genes (and their alleles) underlying QTL for resistance/susceptibility will permit informed searches for homologues in domestic animals, and human beings, through comparative genomic maps. This information in turn will facilitate targeted breeding to improve resistance in domestic animals and, in human beings, focused application of treatment and control strategies for GI nematodes.
(Accepted February 17 2003)