Outsmarting evolution: Fighting a force that threatens civilisation | Artificial intelligence
Cancers, antibiotic resistance and bedbugs all spread because they keep evolving, outsmarting our efforts to fight them. But now we could stop them in their tracks
OVER billions of years, evolution has created a stunning variety of life on Earth, including us humans. Even now, it is helping wildlife adapt to the enormous changes we are making to the planet. But evolution has a dark side too.
For a start, it can be a hazard to health: it is why the cancers that kill 1 in 5 of us grow ever more dangerous as they progress, and stop responding to treatments. It is also why antibiotic-resistant superbugs are becoming more common, and why killer diseases like malaria can evade drugs. It takes a toll on our food and the environment, too, as farmers battle to keep rapidly evolving pests and weeds under control. And it is behind the resurgence of infestations we thought were long defeated, including head lice, bedbugs and rats. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of civilisation depends on our halting these threatening kinds of evolution.
This ambition may sound like hubris, but biologists have long been seeking ways to do just that. They have now come up with a whole array of approaches, including creating “immutable” genes, turning gene-editing tools into “anti-evolution” super-weapons, and making viruses mutate so fast that they cannot evolve. “We can even reverse antibiotic resistance,” says Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, UK.
We tend to think of evolution as a process that happens over millions of years, not as something we need to worry about in practical terms. In fact, it can be rapid and has been causing problems for humanity since the dawn of civilisation. When …