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Applied Evolutionary Research

Evolution of resistance to human interventions is commonplace in the management of diseases and pests of humans and animals.  We are bringing together diverse researchers from wide-ranging fields to find common solutions.

Evolution of resistance to human interventions is commonplace in the management of diseases and pests of humans and animals.  We are bringing together diverse researchers from wide-ranging fields to find common solutions.

Evolution of resistance to human interventions is commonplace in the management of diseases and pests of humans and animals.  We are bringing together diverse researchers from wide-ranging fields to find common solutions.

Much of modern medicine and public health is about attacking the life forms that harm us. Life is extremely good at evolving back, and this counter adaptation is generating some of the most significant human and animal health challenges for the 21st Century. Pathogens rapidly evolve drug resistance and there is a serious risk that some will evolve around vaccines. Mosquitoes rapidly evolve resistance to public health insecticides. Emergent infectious diseases are frequently the result of adaptation to new hosts or new environments. Cancer too is an evolutionary process. The tumor environment is red in tooth and claw, and the evolution of drug resistant cell lines is a major cause of death. It is hard to determine the global burden imposed by all this counter‐adaptation; in the US, perhaps two thirds of a million deaths a year are due to this evolution (combining cancer deaths with those from drug resistant infections). Importantly, the cancer rates are only coming down slowly, and the deaths due to infections are rising rapidly as antimicrobial resistance spreads. Globally, problems of resistance and emergence of infectious diseases, are perhaps even more pressing. In short, evolution matters to human health and well-being.

There is another context where the problems of counter‐adaptation have played out: agriculture. Insect pests, weeds, and plant pathogens all rapidly evolve resistance to insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and even genetically modified crops. Many of these problems are decades old, which mean that folks in agriculture are often well ahead of medicine in resistance management thinking. Penn State is uniquely well placed to lead the world in evolutionary risk assessment and management because we have substantial existing expertise in infectious disease, cancer, evolutionary biology, ecology, herbicide resistance, insecticide resistance and resistance in plant pathogens.

Examples of specific questions that we are trying to address at CIDD are:  

  1. Can the evolution of resistance be best retarded by using chemicals (drugs, insecticides etc) sequentially, in rotations, at random, or in combinations?
  2. Under what circumstances should chemicals be used aggressively? Standard practice is to hit hard; that approach kills semi‐resistant mutants but at the price of providing maximum selective advantage to organisms with high level resistance, the very organisms that cause the problems.
  3. What properties of chemicals best retard evolution (e.g. short or long half lives?, mode of action?)
  4. What non‐chemical technologies can best retard the evolution of resistance? Almost certainly the answers to these questions are context‐specific. The intellectual challenge is to identify the general principles, determine the details that matter and use these to solve real world problems. 

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