The field of evolutionary biology affects the medical profession in three key ways: figuring out what has happened, understanding what is happening now, and trying to predict what will happen in the future to human disease. All three help researchers devise strategies for prevention and treatment of health problems big and small.
One area of particular medical importance is the evolution of microbes — the viruses, bacteria, and other microscopic critters that cause infection — that are increasingly resistant to antibiotics. The more researchers know about how and why microbes evolve as they do, the better they'll be able to counteract the effect of those microbes. Consider, for example, the virus that causes AIDS. Reconstructing evolutionary history has allowed researchers to trace the spread of human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) across the globe, as well as to determine the relationships among human viruses and the immunodeficiency viruses of other animals. From these studies, scientists know that these viruses don't always cause disease in their hosts. By studying related harmless viruses, researchers may be better able to understand exactly why HIV is so dangerous in humans.
The study of evolutionary biology also guides treatment of diseases. The highly successful triple drug therapy that's been amazingly beneficial to HIVpositive individuals is the direct result of scientists' knowledge of how antibiotic resistance works in microbes: Even though mutations in the HIV virus render it resistant to medications, it's more difficult for the virus to evolve resistance to all the drugs at the same time. Finally, by examining how HIV evolves resistance to medicines, scientists hope not only to design better medicines, but also to identify how best to design a vaccine.
Chapters 17, 18, and 19 are chock full of information about the role of evolutionary biology in the fight against disease.
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