At the Interface of Evolution and Medicine


At last week’s Evolution and Medicine Symposium (link no longer available) at the Evolution 2011 meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, experts from around the country came together to discuss how evolutionary biology is influencing our understanding of human health and disease.

At the meeting, I talked about NIGMS’s commitment to funding research on the principles and dynamics of evolution and highlighted the importance of studying biological systems, such as infectious diseases and physiology, in their evolutionary context.

In preparing my remarks, I realized that the work of clinicians and evolutionary biologists could be highly synergistic. M.D.s know a great deal about individual variation and clinical presentation, while evolutionary biologists have a good grasp of variation at the population level. Both of these perspectives are very valuable to the field of personalized medicine, for example. The question now is: How do we create an opportunity for these two groups to work with each other?

The meeting featured many interesting talks, including:

  • Dyann Wirth of the Harvard School of Public Health explained that in the very near future we will have enough sequence data from Plasmodium, mosquitoes and humans to understand regional variation as well as co-evolution of the malaria pathogen and its hosts. We should be able to use this information to build computational models and evaluate intervention, eradication and elimination strategies. Wirth said these capabilities stem from advances in DNA sequencing technologies that are having a revolutionary effect on evolution research, including evolution and medicine.
  • Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington spoke on the integration of mathematical modeling and evolution. He gave a real example of how to use antiviral drugs most effectively in an influenza outbreak. The question was how to deploy antivirals to reduce the likelihood of resistance and minimize illness and death. Bergstrom said that the answer is non-obvious unless you understand how phylogenies work and know a little bit of math.
  • Angela Hancock of the University of Chicago talked about recent data showing that human genetic variation that’s adaptive in one context will not be so in other contexts. Studying 61 populations from different parts of the world, she identified signals of selection in a variety of genes related to UV radiation, infection and immunity, and cancer.

This symposium came at the perfect time to describe two new NIGMS-related efforts. We previewed an NIH high school curriculum supplement on evolution and medicine that will be released this fall. Also, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we will be announcing later this summer a call for applications to study dynamic biological systems in their ecological and evolutionary contexts. I’ll share more details about these efforts in the near future.

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