Friday, March 23, 2007

Most descriptions of microbial evolution avoid using the term ‘evolution’ - and why this matters

A quite readable article in PLoS Biology by Antonovics et al "Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word".

"The increase in resistance of human pathogens to antimicrobial agents is one of the best-documented examples of evolution in action at the present time, and because it has direct life-and-death consequences, it provides the strongest rationale for teaching evolutionary biology as a rigorous science in high school biology curricula, universities, and medical schools. In spite of the importance of antimicrobial resistance, we show that the actual word "evolution" is rarely used in the papers describing this research. Instead, antimicrobial resistance is said to "emerge," "arise," or "spread" rather than "evolve." Moreover, we show that the failure to use the word "evolution" by the scientific community may have a direct impact on the public perception of the importance of evolutionary biology in our everyday lives."

"It has been repeatedly rumored (and reiterated by one of the reviewers of this article) that both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have in the past actively discouraged the use of the word "evolution" in titles or abstracts of proposals so as to avoid controversy."

"Nowadays, medical researchers are increasingly realizing that evolutionary processes are involved in immediate threats associated with not only antibiotic resistance but also emerging diseases [1,2]. The evolution of antimicrobial resistance has resulted in 2- to 3-fold increases in mortality of hospitalized patients, has increased the length of hospital stays, and has dramatically increased the costs of treatment [3,4]. It is doubtful that the theory of gravity (a force that can neither be seen nor touched, and for which physicists have no agreed upon explanation) would be so readily accepted by the public were it not for the fact that ignoring it can have lethal results. This brief survey shows that by explicitly using evolutionary terminology, biomedical researchers could greatly help convey to the layperson that evolution is not a topic to be innocuously relegated to the armchair confines of political or religious debate. Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers."

1 comment:

  1. Evolution consists of 2 parts: (1) the development of the trait through mutation/recombination etc; (2) selection for the trait such that it ceases to be rare. In the case of antibiotic resistance (2) is obvious, but you need to also demonstrate (1) to call it evolution. I haven't read the article all the way through, and I'm not personally familiar with the literature, but, in the case of antibiotic resistance, I would guess that part of the reason for the word "emerge" is that it isn't scientically rigorous to say "evolve" if you can't prove the resistance wasn't present, but rare, all along.
    Just a point, I'm not disputing that it is evolution or that it should be treated as such.