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Greater efforts to put evolution to good use but also to understand the threats it poses in healthcare and agriculture are “vital in meeting current and future targets for sustainable development”, according to a scientific review.
The review, published earlier this month (11 September) in Science, points out how sharing lessons from evolutionary biology can help address global challenges that endanger health, food security and biodiversity.
“We’re calling for a coordinated strategy to deal with very similar types of problems that are occurring in many sectors of the economy, and where research in the past has been very confined to each sector and isolated,” says Peter Søgaard Jørgensen, one of its authors, from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
“Resistance is a perennial challenge, but we can contain it with evolutionary tactics and genomics.”
Scott Carroll, University of California
The review groups a vast set of specific problems into two key challenges facing development: the resistance of bacteria and pests to antibiotics and pesticides, and the inability of vital species to adapt to modern environments.
In the first, harmful species are rapidly evolving beyond our ability to fight them. In the second, we are modifying the environment too fast for beneficial species to evolve to keep up.
The researchers say these problems are being tackled in many situations, but evolutionary approaches could be more widely adopted.
“Agriculture is facing the same problem with resistance as the medical sector, but [researchers] haven’t been exchanging successes and failures in addressing these challenges,” Jørgensen says.
He says antibiotic misuse drives rapid microbial evolution that particularly threatens sustainable development in countries with limited access to new medicines.
Co-author Scott Carroll from the University of California, Davis, United States, says: “Resistance is a perennial challenge, but we can contain it with evolutionary tactics and genomics.”
Such tactics include taking the multidrug cocktails used to delay the evolution of resistant strains of HIV and developing it into multi-pesticide or multi-antibiotic approaches elsewhere, he says.
“With resistance effects spreading into nature, emerging disease is one of the front-lines for an integrated field of applied evolution,” he says.
Jørgensen says the “good news” is that tools needed to implement this approach — genetic engineering and gene sequencing — are already available.
For example, gene sequencing has made us better at choosing which crops are best to breed for altered environments, he says. “That has resulted in improved flood-tolerant crops in Bangladesh for millions of people.”
Priya Kurian, a social scientist at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, says the review showcases research with real policy potential.
But she adds that it fails to acknowledge the “larger political, social, economic and cultural forces” that are “the underlying reasons for the problems we face”.
Science doi: 10.1126/science.1245993 (2014)