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Applying evolutionary biology to address global challenges

TitleApplying evolutionary biology to address global challenges
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsCarroll S.P, Jorgensen P.S, Kinnison M.T, Bergstrom C.T, Denison R.F, Gluckman P., Smith T.B, Strauss S.Y, Tabashnik B.E
Pagination1245993 - 1245993
Date Published05/2015


Differences among species in their ability to adapt to environmental change threaten biodiversity, human health, food security, and natural resource availability. Pathogens, pests, and cancers often quickly evolve resistance to control measures, whereas crops, livestock, wild species, and human beings often do not adapt fast enough to cope with climate change, habitat loss, toxicants, and lifestyle change. To address these challenges, practices based on evolutionary biology can promote sustainable outcomes via strategic manipulation of genetic, developmental, and environmental factors. Successful strategies effectively slow unwanted evolution and reduce fitness in costly species or improve performance of valued organisms by reducing phenotype-environment mismatch or increasing group productivity. Tactics of applied evolutionary biology range broadly, from common policies that promote public health or preserve habitat for threatened species—but are easily overlooked as having an evolutionary rationale, to the engineering of new genomes.

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Tactics and tools of applied evolutionary biology. (Top) Evolutionary tactics to address the major societal challenges treated in the present study are shown as a wheel. Challenges in the food, health, and environment sectors are caused by rapid contemporary evolution or, in more slowly reproducing or threatened species, phenotype-environment mismatch. Gene flow and selection agents make challenges in one sector dependent on actions in others. Current progress in implementing tactics of applied evolutionary biology to address challenges varies widely. (Bottom) Many of these tactics use a common toolbox of strategies to prevent unwanted evolution or to reduce fitness in harmful organisms, as well as to reduce mismatch between organisms and human-altered environments or to increase group performance in desired organisms. Each of these strategies uses a combination of manipulations of the organismal genotype, phenotypic plasticity (development), or environmental conditions.


The scope and development of current tactics vary widely. In particular, genetic engineering attracts much attention (and controversy) but now is used mainly for traits under simple genetic control. Human gene therapy, which mainly involves more complex controls, has yet to be applied successfully at large scales. In contrast, other methods to alter complex traits are improving. These include artificial selection for drought- and flood-tolerant crops through bioinformatics and application of “life course” approaches in medicine to reduce human metabolic disorders.

Successful control of unwanted evolution depends on governance initiatives that address challenges arising from both natural and social factors. Principal among these challenges are (i) global transfer of genes and selection agents; (ii) interlinked evolution across traditional sectors of society (environment, food, and health); and (iii) conflicts between individual and group incentives that threaten regulation of antibiotic use and crop refuges. Evolutionarily informed practices are a newer prospect in some fields and require more systematic research, as well as ethical consideration—for example, in attempts to protect wild species through assisted migration, in the choice of source populations for restoration, or in genetic engineering.


A more unified platform will better convey the value of evolutionary methods to the public, scientists, and decision-makers. For researchers and practitioners, applications may be expanded to other disciplines, such as in the transfer of refuge strategies that slow resistance evolution in agriculture to slow unwanted evolution elsewhere (for example, cancer resistance or harvest-induced evolution). For policy-makers, adoption of practices that minimize unwanted evolution and reduce phenotype-environment mismatch in valued species is likely essential to achieve the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals and the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Short TitleScience
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