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Indices of immune function used by ecologists are mostly unaffected by repeated freeze-thaw cycles and methodological deviations.

Posted by on in 2017
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Hegemann A1Pardal S2Matson KD3Front Zool. 2017 Sep 1;14:43. doi: 10.1186/s12983-017-0226-9. eCollection 2017.

Department of Biology, Lund University, Ecology Building, SE-223 62 Lund, Sweden.
MARE - Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre, Department of Life Sciences, University of Coimbra, 3000-456 Coimbra, Portugal.
Resource Ecology Group, Environmental Sciences Department, Wageningen University, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands.



Over the past couple of decades, measuring immunological parameters has become widespread in studies of ecology and evolution. A combination of different immunological indices is useful for quantifying different parts of the immune system and comprehensively assessing immune function. Running multiple immune assays usually requires samples to be repeatedly thawed and re-frozen. There is some evidence that repeated freezing and thawing can affect assay results, but this has never been comprehensively studied in some common ecological immunology assays. We tested the effect of multiple (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10) freeze-thaw cycles on the results of four commonly used immunological assays: haemolysis-haemagglutination titres, haptoglobin concentration, bacterial killing capacity and total immunoglobulins (IgY). We tested five different bird species from four different bird orders (Passeriformes, Columbiformes, Charadriiformes and Galliformes), and we included both captive and free-living individuals. In addition, we tested for haptoglobin concentrations and the haemolysis-haemagglutination assay if re-analysing samples 1 year apart led to different results. For the haemolysis-haemagglutination assay we also tested two different sources of rabbit blood, and we compared untreated microtitre plates with plates that were "blocked" to prevent nonspecific interactions between the plate and assay reagents.


Repeated freezing and thawing of plasma had no effect on lysis titres, haptoglobin concentrations, bacterial killing capacity, or total immunoglobulin levels. Agglutination titres were unaffected by up to five cycles but were lower after ten freeze-thaw cycles. For the haemolysis-haemagglutination assay and haptoglobin concentrations, re-analysing samples 1 year apart yielded highly correlated data. For the haemolysis-haemagglutination assay, the source of rabbit blood did not influence the results, and the untreated vs. blocked plates differed slightly overall, but at the individual level assay results were highly correlated. Using different rabbit blood sources or different types of microtitre plates yielded highly correlated data.


Our data suggest that repeated freeze-thaw cycles do not impair assay results to the point of influencing ecological or evolutionary conclusions. Plasma samples can be safely stored in one tube and thawed repeatedly for different assays. Nevertheless, we recommend consistent treatment of samples in terms of freeze-thaw cycles or other laboratory treatments to minimize the potential for introducing a systematic bias.


Assay methodology; Avian; Eco-immunology; Immunity assays; Pre-analytical error; Repeated defrosting; Sample stability

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