Two categories of evolutionary challenges result from escalating human impacts on the planet. The first arises from cancers, pathogens and pests that evolve too quickly, and the second from the inability of many valued species to adapt quickly enough. Applied evolutionary biology provides a suite of strategies to address these global challenges that threaten human health, food security, and biodiversity. This review highlights both progress and gaps in genetic, developmental and environmental manipulations across the life sciences that either target the rate and direction of evolution, or reduce the mismatch between organisms and human-altered environments. Increased development and application of these underused tools will be vital in meeting current and future targets for sustainable development.
A team of scientists from Denmark and the USA reviewed current progress in addressing a broad set of challenges in agriculture, medicine and environmental management using evolutionary approaches, approaches that consider species' evolutionary histories and the likelihood of rapid evolutionary adaptation to human activities. Above's quote is from the abstract their paper published in Science. They argue that our ability to solve societal challenges in food security, emerging diseases and biodiversity loss will require evolutionary thinking in order to be effective in the long run. Inattention to this will only lead to greater challenges such as short-lived medicines and agricultural treatments, problems that may ultimately hinder sustainable development.
The study finds an urgent need for better implementation of these approaches, for example in managing the use of antibiotics and pesticides in order to reduce the escalating problem of resistance evolution. Furthermore, current efforts are found insufficient to reduce the accumulating costs from chronic disease and biodiversity loss, two challenges ultimately caused by exposure to food and environments to which people and threatened wildlife are poorly adapted.
Applying evolutionary biology has tremendous potential, because it takes into account how unwanted pests or pathogens may adapt rapidly to our interventions and how highly valued species including humans on the other hand are often very slow to adapt to changing environments through evolution. Not considering such aspects may result in outcomes opposite of those desired, making the pests more resistant to our actions, humans more exposed to diseases and vulnerable species less able to cope with new conditions.
There is no shortage of examples for innovative solutions based on applying knowledge gained from evolutionary biology research. Just one example - farmers in the United States and Australia have used planting of pest-friendly refuges to delay evolution of insect resistance to genetically engineered corn and cotton. These genetically modified crops kill certain pests, but without refuges the pests quickly adapt. Providing refuges of conventional plants has been especially effective for suppressing resistance in the pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella), an invasive pest of cotton. Now, one might have some reservations about genetic engineering but the general concept applies to all situations in which the development of resistance threatens our efforts.
Overall a very interesting read. I couldn't agree more with their final conclusion:
Successful governance of living systems requires understanding evolutionary history as well as contemporary and future evolutionary dynamics. Our current scientific capacity for evolutionarily-informed management does not match the need, but it can be increased through new and more widespread training and collaboration, monitored experimentation, and context-sensitive implementation. Like engineering, which is a multifaceted applied science with common core principles, shared vocabulary and coordinated methods, applied evolutionary biology has the potential to serve society as a predictive and integrative framework for addressing practical concerns in applied biology which share at their core the basic evolutionary principles governing life.