Evolution to the rescue

September 12, 2014
Researchers argue that evolutionary thinking is key to addressing challenges such as food security, emerging diseases and biodiversity loss.

R. Ford Denison, adjunct professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, contributed to a new review article published in Science Express September 11, 2014, that argues that a prevailing short-term perspective on eradicating human pathogens, reducing agricultural pests and managing wildlife at risk stands in the way of achieving long-term sustainable solutions.

“Pest and pathogens are evolving resistance to our control measures while humans and some endangered species are not evolving fast enough to adapt to changing conditions,” says Denison. “Ongoing evolution can undermine control of agricultural pests and human disease, but we can design evolutionary strategies to minimize these problems. Evolutionary biologists in agriculture, medicine, and conservation are starting to share ideas to address these challenges.”

Denison and colleagues at eight other institutions argue that tools are needed that take a longer-term perspective by considering species’ evolutionary histories and the risk of unwanted effects from rapid evolutionary adaptation to human management. The review was led by researchers from the University of California, Davis, and the University of Copenhagen.

For the first time, a diverse group of scientists have reviewed progress in addressing a broad set of challenges in agriculture, medicine and environmental management using such evolutionary approaches. These techniques range from managing the use of antibiotics to slow resistance, and policies aimed at reducing exposure to food and environments to which people and wildlife are poorly adapted.

“We can often slow evolution of resistance to pest-control methods, antibiotics, or cancer drugs by alternating or combining control methods,” says Denison, whose recent book, Darwinian Agriculture, also discusses implications of past evolution for genetic improvement of crops and for agricultural ecology.