Can we predict evolution?

July 02, 2015

Is it possible to predict the evolution of the influenza virus? Or how rapidly bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics? Or even how cancer cells spread inside a human being? These are some of the main topics of discussion that bring together renowned scientists from all over the world at the scientific conference "Forecasting evolution?" held at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (FCG; Portugal) from 8th to 11th July.

Evolutionary biology is changing its focus from reconstructing history to predicting future processes. Until now, looking ahead to evolution's future was not something that scientists would invest their time in. Given the complexity of factors that can influence this process, predict how life will be like on Earth, millions of years from now, seems completely unrealistic. However, experiments in different organisms, either in the laboratory or in the wild, seem to indicate that it might be possible to predict evolution within a short period of time.

Forecasting evolution could be extremely beneficial for human health. Being able to make predictions about future flu seasons would make the choice of vaccines more accurate. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are also a major concern. Predicting the evolution of microbes in response to antibiotic use would help making informed decisions about antibiotic usage. Foresee how the HIV virus can evolve or predict the genetic alterations that occur during tumour development could be extremely useful in planning treatments and protect us from unwanted events. The fact is that making predictions about all these health threats could actually help saving lives.

Isabel Gordo, principal investigator at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia (IGC; Portugal) and one of the organisers of the conference, says: "The experiments that we and others have been doing reveal a remarkable reproducibility of the genetic targets undergoing evolutionary change when microbes adapt to specific environments inside our bodies. The microbes seem to be telling us that we can forecast their evolution in the short term."

So, will scientists be able to forecast evolution? This scientific conference, organised by Isabel Gordo (IGC; Portugal), Michael Lassig (University of Cologne; Germany), and Ville Mustonen (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute; UK), brings together experts on many different areas, such as microbes, viral evolution and epidemiology, evolution of cancer and cancer therapy, and evolutionary ecology. A long list of renowned international speakers will discuss what is, what may become and what is not predictable in evolution, and ultimately its impact on human health.

Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia

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