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Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


‘A little dirt is good for you’: Researchers study how environment affects immunity

Joey Reuteman

In 2014, Univeristy of Wisconsin Asthma and Allergic Diseases Clinical Research Center principal investigator James Gern started the Gern Research Group. His research group studies the difference in a child’s immune system when exposed to farm versus non-farm environments by studying cohorts of farm children versus urban children.

Using the knowledge gained in this study, Gern said he is looking to find new treatments and recommendations to improve children’s health, but not everything medical necessarily involves medicinal intervention. Immune development could be improved just by the environmental exposure a child gets, Gern said.

Molecular virology professor Ann Palmenberg said she has worked with Gern in the research group for 15 years. The cohort of patients Gern and Palmenberg study are from Amish farm communities, which they then compare to children who grew up in larger cities, so they can study the possible causal effects of farm living on the human immune system.


“Jim [Gern] has a very unique cohort of patients that he can study, to look at the effects of the environment on the development of the immune system, because the Amish have a unique lifestyle that is different from city life in the way they deal with their animals and their children and their interaction with their environment in the barn,” Palmenberg said.

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The study aims to watch the immune development of children growing up on farms and their response to infectious disease, opening a door to see what things in the environment affect immunity, Palmenberg said.

Gern said that in the first couple years after a child is born, there is a lot of development with the body, especially the immune system. In order to be physically strong and healthy, the immune system needs to be taught what to accept and reject.

“And what immune systems are learning … is to develop effective ways to fight germs while you tolerate things like foods and plants that just brush up against your skin,” Gern said.

Palmenberg said environmental exposure can dictate whether a child develops health issues like asthma, allergies and other immunity issues. As a child’s immune system develops, it becomes tolerant to its environment. The exposure a child experiences affects how robust their immune system is.

Surveys show farm-raised children have fewer health-issue-related visits to the doctor, Gern said. Reports show children on farms also tend to have fewer cases of asthma and allergies, most likely due to their environmental exposures that don’t appear in urban settings.

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Palmenberg said it is overall healthier to be raised on a farm because of the variety of positive exposure to allergens like bacteria, foods, plant pollen and animal dander, which all work together to strengthen the immune system.

Wisconsin, a state known for its dairy farms, provides a unique opportunity for this type of research to occur, Palmenberg said. From a number of Amish farm communities, large cities and one of the largest allergy research programs at UW, Wisconsin is the perfect location for this research, according to Palmenberg.

Gern said the number of small family farms are dwindling in the U.S., but Wisconsin is an exception. Many farms have converted to farms with one animal as the focus, instead of a few of everything. This can hurt the immune system strength of the people living on the farm, as they might not develop as much as they would with the variety of animal exposure, Gern said.

As small family farms disappear, so do the amount of children who tend to the animals. Children then are losing out on close exposure to that variety of farm animals, Gern said.

The research group has been following cohorts of children in farm and urban environments over a number of years to track their health, Palmenberg said. The families fill out questionnaires to give scientists data on these children’s lifestyles and health.

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Palmenberg said nature versus nurture is a main driver in the study of farm versus non-farm exposure. The research group is trying to figure out whether immunity medical issues exist due to the way a child is brought up, nurtured, exposed to or their genetics.

The research group ultimately aims to find out what the immune system depends on in order for it to be strong, Palmenberg said.

In addition to survey data collected from communities, Gern said they sample nasal cells by scraping the inside of the nose with a Q-Tip to test for viruses, which live in the nose. Scientists can use these cells to study a person’s genome, or an organism’s complete set of DNA, to see what genes it’s making.

“We’re especially thankful for our Wisconsin farm families that interact with us scientists,” Gern said. “We’re collecting samples and asking them to fill out questionnaires. I’m just amazed at the altruism of the farm community and being willing to share this information.”

Gern is also a co-PI for a project studying the development of allergies in urban areas. He said children who grow up in more contaminated cities have higher rates of asthma. This is especially dangerous as children are more likely to be hospitalized due to asthma, Gern said.

“So they [urban-raised children] don’t have contact with animals, green spaces or dirt and that might be necessary to get those broad biological exposures that give them a healthy microbiome and a healthy immune system,” Gern said. “So that’s what we’re trying to find out — what are the bad things? What are they missing? We hope to learn from the farm families.”

It’s uncertain yet if comparing the results from both of these studies will find the major requirements of a strong immune system. But Palmenberg said the main finding from the Gern research group, so far, is that it’s healthier to be raised on a farm.

“Getting exposure to all of the positive microbes in the environment develops much more healthy kids, so a little dirt is good for you,” Palmenberg said.

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