Previous generations will remember getting an antibiotic for every runny nose or sore throat, but doctors are much more meticulous these days. When penicillin was first discovered, it was abused and over-prescribed to the point that bacteria rapidly evolved to resist the medicine.
That’s right, evolution. The same process that gave birds their wings and fish their gills over a period of hundreds of millions of years is still active in our daily lives. The range of antibiotics that are actually effective has narrowed, and doctors are searching for new solutions.
“That’s the threat. The evolution of resistance,” said Laura Reed, an assistant professor of biology in the University of Alabama’s Evolution Working Group. “By focusing the development of new treatment on the Achilles heels of the bacteria . . . evolution is a very helpful thing to know.”
Reed is hosting a lecture at UA by Michael Antolin called “What Doctors Need to Know About Evolution.” Antolin is a researcher who has looked at plagues in prairies dog populations and the mating of parasitic wasps. He is visiting Feb. 26 as part of UA’s ALLELE series, Alabama Lectures on Life’s Evolution.
“When we were looking at good people to invite for the ALLELE series, we wanted someone who was involved in evolutionary medicine and he was a good candidate for that,” Reed said. “His work is mostly focused on wildlife. Deer and things like that, and looking at infectious disease, but he uses similar approaches to how I think about the science that I do.”
The lecture will look at how evolution plays a part in modern medicine, not just for doctors, but for anyone who gets sick and needs health care.
“Your average family care doctor needs to be very aware of both educating both their patients and themselves,” Reed said. “Making sure they’re prescribing only to the situation where it’s really needed.”
Reed explained that if a patient stops taking their medicine when they start feeling better, there may be leftover bacteria still evolving in your system. That may not be a problem for the original patient, but when the disease jumps to another person, it will be even stronger and harder to treat.
“That’s why you need the full course,” Reed said. “Everyone needs to know about that, not just doctors.”
As a doctor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Reed gives students the opportunity to see the science in action with her fruit fly research. Many medical students still graduate without any focused study on evolutionary science.
“It’s generally neglected . . . medical schools vary whether or not they teach evolution as part of their curriculum,” Reed said. “We have a ways to go.”
At UA, Reed examines huge swarms of fruit flies to learn more about obesity and diabetes. With many generations of specimens, she has a lot of opportunities to track down patterns and examine a huge number of cases.
“Basically, I feed the fruit flies nasty things to eat, like a high-fat diet,” Reed said. “Then they get obesity and diabetes and we can look at why they developed it, and which genotypes are at higher risk.”
One of the biggest obstacles for Reed in presenting her research is convincing people that fruit flies are actually relevant to human anatomy. The similar physiologies, like hearts and circulatory systems, make fruit flies perfect for studying disease, but doctors are always skeptical.
“It would be a lot easier if the doctors already recognized that,” Reed said. “Flies have insulin the same way humans do. . . All that stuff is well conserved from the common ancestor.”
The ALLELE series has focused on not only biology, but also everything from psychology to geology to morality. Speakers from all over the country have come to give their perspective about evolutionary science.
“It’s relevant to all these different fields,” Reed said. “The goal of the evolution working group here on campus is to help those on campus and off campus understand how it does permeate all these different fields. It’s not just some weird biologists.”
Reed pointed out Chris Mooney as one speaker who was particularly interesting when he came to UA in November. Mooney is a journalist and author who has written about many scientific controversies, and criticized the way political leaders respond.
“He has a really interesting perspective because he’s not a scientist. He’s a science writer,” Reed said. “He’s done a lot of thinking about the politics of science and how science is funded and how society does or doesn’t accept scientific outcomes related to evolution and climate change. It’s a much more sociological perspective.”
Also coming to UA Jan. 29 is Patrick McGovern with “Uncorking the Past: Fermentation as Earth’s Earliest Energy System and Humankind’s First Biotechnology.” McGovern is a pioneer in the field of molecular archeology, and has studied ancient forms of fermentation from civilizations as old as Neolithic China.
While the general population assumes that evolution is a thing of the past, modern human history has plenty of examples of how evolution has shaped our lives. A prime example is milk.
“You can attribute lactose tolerance to the emergence of agriculture and animals that produce milk,” Reed said. “Before that we never were able to metabolize lactose as adults, but it’s a valuable nutrition resource. So with the pressure of it becoming available . . . lactose tolerance has evolved.”
Before humans started domesticating cows and goats, babies produced the right enzyme to digest milk, but lost the ability as soon as they matured.
“The gene that’s responsible for tolerance or intolerance is actually kind of a toggle switch,” Reed said. “As babies, it’s on. At some point it starts to turn off, as we get older. So in human evolution we delayed the time it turned off, so that lets some expression of the gene through. It’s kind of a scale.”
Evolution also plays a part in a disease that has caused more than 36 million deaths worldwide, HIV and AIDS.
“The progression of an HIV infection is an evolutionary progress,” Reed said. “Part of why it’s so hard to treat is the target’s always moving. The virus itself is actively evolving. Being aware of evolutionary processes can be critical.”
Reed encourages anyone with an interest in science, or even just their health, to attend Antolin’s lecture in February. The presentation will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Biology Building lecture hall on the UA campus.
“Anyone can learn something from it,” Reed said. “Anyone can benefit from learning about evolution.”

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