Changing the world gene by gene

Here’s the skinny: evolution is happening all the time, all around us. Living things are like one roiling mass of DNA. OK, so that’s a little over the top. But DNA is far more dynamic than once believed, and our use of toxic chemicals — from antibiotics to pesticides — is making this abundantly clear. Ever since some distant ancestor realized that life could be snuffed out by way of mineral, animal or vegetable poisons, humans have been in the business of killing off those deemed pests – human or otherwise. Once we figured out how to synthesize poisons in the laboratory – we ramped up this business of killing off whatever we didn’t like or need.  Antibiotics, weed, mosquito, lice and rat killing chemicals – for better or worse made us the so-called masters of our local environments.  Until we weren’t.  Today we live in a world of resistance: resistant staph, strep and syphilis; mosquitos, lice and bedbugs; even rats and mice. What do all of these species have in common? Rapid evolution in response to our chemical poisons. Evolution isn’t just for museum dioramas it is a part of our everyday life. It is ongoing all the time, all around us.  One gene here, another there – selected under pressure from killer chemicals.  Too often our response is to up the dose.  More antibiotic; more pesticide. Ironically, that’s just the kind of push that highly evolvable species need. When we threaten pigweed or staphylococcus or lice with eradication, we are challenging them to evolve or die. Too often they simply evolve. But we can change the equation. Use less rather than more and reduce the pressure; alternate with nonchemical approaches; turn an evolved resistance into a weakness; or even in some cases practice some Kumbaya and learn how to live with rather than annihilate whatever is bugging us.  We can no longer afford to ignore evolution. Rather than risk heading off into a near future hilled with Super Bugs whether pest or pathogen, we can change our ways now. We can reduce our evolutionary footprint.

Over the next few weeks and months, as I wrap up the next book project Unnatural Evolution (to be published by Island Press) about the effects of rapid evolution on our lives stay tuned for selected examples, or whatever happens to pop up in the news re: rapid evolution!

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