Short Science: Can We Predict Evolution?

Influenza-virusMy Chrome phone browser has dozens of tabs open on it right now. It’s a terrible hoarding of interesting articles which I think I’ll say something about on this blog, but then often fail to do. A short while back (in July), Carl Zimmer wrote at Quanta Magazine on predicting evolution (“The New Science of Evolutionary Forecasting”). It is a fascinating piece about an area of research that is very relevant during flu season.

Since evolution is complicated, the idea of predicting any changes seems nearly impossible to me, but this article points out some interesting studies that challenge this assumption.

For the most part, though, lizard evolution followed predictable patterns. Each time lizards colonized an island, they evolved into many of the same forms. On each island, some lizards adapted to living high in trees, evolving pads on their feet for gripping surfaces, along with long legs and a stocky body. Other lizards adapted to life among the thin branches lower down on the trees, evolving short legs that help them hug their narrow perches. Still other lizards adapted to living in grass and shrubs, evolving long tails and slender trunks. On island after island, the same kinds of lizards have evolved.

“I think the tide is running against Gould,” Losos said. Other researchers are also finding cases in which evolution is repeating itself. When cichlid fish colonize lakes in Africa, for example, they diversify into the same range of forms again and again.

This, of course, has its limitations:

In some trials, the scientists only tracked the evolution of a few traits, while in others, they tracked many. They found that in the simple models, the populations tended to follow the same path, even though they started out in slightly different places. In other words, their evolution was fairly easy to predict.

But when the scientists tracked the evolution of many traits at once, that predictability disappeared. Despite starting out under almost identical conditions, the populations veered off on different evolutionary paths. In other words, evolution turned to chaos.

And this is where the flu virus comes into play.

Even over short periods of time, accurate forecasts can save lives. Meteorologists can make fairly reliable predictions about treacherous weather a few days in advance. That can be enough time to evacuate a town ahead of a hurricane or lay in supplies for a blizzard…

…One of the most compelling examples comes from Lässig. Using his physics background, he is working on a way to forecast the flu….

Read the full article and find out more about what this does for forecasting the flu virus at Quanta.

In search of belief changing ideas