A New Role for Interferons: Teaching

Interferons are signaling proteins in immune systems that have long been appreciated for their role in defending the body against viral attacks. Interferons hinder viruses from multiplying inside host cells, activate killer cells and macrophages (engulfing cells), and communicate with lymphocytes to help host cells deal with viral infection. Now researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas have discovered “a new role for interferon: teacher.”1

Human immune systems have a programmed memory device so that when the body is re-infected with a virus, it quickly recognizes the invaders and deals with them. Without this immune memory, which fades over time, the body would be subject to repeated infections at every inoculation. In their new study, published in the Journal of Immunology, the researchers discovered that the little protein interferon is also a vital link in the biochemical chain of events that makes this antigen memory possible, in effect “teaching” the immune system to recognize returning viruses.2

One evolutionary explanation for the origin of these multiple interferon immune functions is that extra interferons somehow became available and were thereby able to evolve more functions, eventually including that of “teacher.” However, besides lacking evidence, this hypothesis ignores the main problem—that interferons are only useful in several biological contexts because there already are multiple biological systems in existence, each of which is functional, in which the interferons can operate. For example, a telephone line can transmit either meaningful voice or digital data only if there are pre-orchestrated systems (telephones interfacing with ears/brains, and fax machines interfacing with printers) for the line to be a part of. Like interferons, the telephone line is purposeless outside of pre-existing specified functional contexts.

Interferons viewed through the creation model make more sense. Just as interferons have biological uses only in the context of interconnected, fully-functional suites of immune system biochemicals, so the origin of interferons makes sense only in the context of the Creator God of the Bible. Not only does He reveal His intelligence in efficient and hardy design and manufacture, but He shows His benevolence through the very purpose of interferons—protecting the body from viral or other invaders.


  1. Interferon needed for cells to 'remember' how to defeat a virus, researchers report. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center press release, December 3, 2008.
  2. Davis, A. M. et al. 2008. Cutting Edge: A T-bet-Independent Role for IFN-/β in Regulating IL-2 Secretion in Human CD4+ Central Memory T Cells. The Journal of Immunology. 181 (12): 8204-8208.

* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer.

Article posted on December 16, 2008.

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