MSP46: EVILUTION [THE DARK SIDE OF EVOLUTION]
MSP46: EVILUTION [THE DARK SIDE OF EVOLUTION]
Science is building an impressive toolkit that is enabling us to fight back against Evolution’s darker urges. How? It’s time to Mattsplain.
Evolution. Not something we often talk about here on Mattsplained. Mainly because evolution has reached its peak in the form of Kulturpop’s Matt Armitage…
I’m not going to let you write these introductions anymore. If you’re the peak of evolution then we’ve already passed the tipping point to extinction.
We tend to think of evolution in terms of improvements that tend to take thousands of years. But some organisms and animals are able to adapt and mutate much faster. Which leads us into proper Mattsplained territory, the dark side of the process, which we are calling Evilution.
You made up a word for today’s show…
· Yes. We’re all about the clickbait on this show.
· Hold tight for 7 reasons why evolution will kill you.
· No, of course not.
· But we are talking about evolution. We're going to talk about the ways that Evolution targets us and some other ways in which we are starting to fight back.
You’re not going to talk about the giant ants again are you? I keep telling you that Them! is a 1950s B-movie not a documentary…
· You clearly don’t spend enough time on the Internet.
· Look at the way that the local wildlife population has survived the Chernobyl disaster.
· Is it really so far-fetched that radioactive tests after WW2 resulted in giant ants that roamed the New Mexico desert neighbouring towns?
· You’ve got to start thinking more clearly Jeff. Forget your obsession with the lamestream media.
· Take off the blinkers, open up your mind.
I’m not hopeful about today’s show. When Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of species, do you think he ever imagined, well, you?
· Darwin was oddly interested in finches and pigeons.
· My face is often recognised as kittens by AI but I think I’m probably a fair distance away from what he imagined as natural selection.
Does Unnatural selection exist? You may be a prime example.
· As with a lot of things in life: only in Star Trek.
· One of the early episodes of Star Trek TNG – Season two, I believe–featured a bunch of genetically altered children whose immune systems altered the environment around them and caused normal humans to rapidly age and die.
· And of course that’s the easiest way for one species to conquer another.
· Not with anything so complicated as war, but by infecting them with pathogens that they can’t fight.
Still, you’re not the healthiest specimen…
· That’s another one of those weird things that we’ve covered in the show before.
· Those people who are seemingly robust and never fall ill are not necessarily the ones who live to the oldest age.
· Some studies have suggested that that strength can become a weakness.
· Someone who is rarely sick - Their immune system is not used to fighting and adapting, so when they get older and contract even something straight forward like flu, the immune system is unused to it and the person may die as a result.
· People who fall ill more regularly, a much better equipped to cope and are more likely to recover quickly.
Does Star Trek have anything to do with today?
· More than you might think…
I think it’s been a while since anyone did any thinking on this show…
· We tend to take a very animal centric view of evolution.
· Which is why we tend to think of it as a very slow process.
· But some organisms evolve very rapidly. Even in the animal kingdom.
· Think about the tolerance to pesticides that creatures ranging from rats to cockroaches to mosquitoes that can build up over a few generations, which in extreme cases can be months or a handful of years.
Natural selection allows them to build up a tolerance or immunity?
· Exactly. You’d probably want a biologist or immunologist on to explain it properly but right now you’ve only got me.
· As usual, if I have any of the facts wrong, please tweet us, because I no longer use twitter.
· So that would be a great example of Darwinian natural selection at work.
Can we get serious? We’ve had Star Trek, a B-movie, your hatred of Twitter and we’re already half way to the break.
· Last week’s show was very serious, so today I’m releasing the pressure valve a little,
o Restoring the balance, preventing an on-air earthquake
o Keeping those evolutionary forces in equilibrium.
Now you are trying to claim that you’re waffling as a public service?
· To quote Faith No More: it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.
· And I take your point.
· Have a look at history of the 20thcentury – am I getting serious enough for you?
· Antibiotics brought many diseases under-control. We thought we’d eradicated diseases like polio and smallpox.
· We were able to bring malaria, one of the world’s greatest killers, if not to heel then at least to push back against it.
And now we’re losing?
· It’s what nature does. We fight a battle and we think we’ve won the war.
· We forget that the planet does things to a completely different timescale.
· And we are active participants in creating the conditions that allows evolution or dark evolution to flourish.
· Who would’ve thought that changes in our social behaviour would enable dark pests to proliferate.
· Look at headlice.
How have we gone from radioactive ants to headlice?
· You asked me to get serious.
· When I was a kid you’d get the occasional outbreak of lice at school, but nothing too serious.
· Now, at precisely the time that these insects are becoming immune or more tolerant to the chemicals we use to kill them with, we are becoming more tactile.
Don’t we talk about kids being more isolated and less friendly in real life?
· Sure, and kids have always been physical with each other.
· But now we have a lot more shared behaviours that we didn’t have before.
· Who would’ve thought that sharing headphones or huddling around a smartphone would turn into the equivalent of the head louse Olympics?
You’re blaming the kids again?
· No. Well maybe just a little bit.
· We’re seeing the same patterns over and over again in other parts of our ordinary lives.
· Our addiction to fast food and food waste is like crack cocaine for rats.
And we build them sewers and underpasses and underground rail systems to help them get around…
· Cheap air travel is not only broadening our minds, it’s allowing bed bugs to travel across continents too.
· As for antibiotics, that’s a bit like squandering the best thing that ever happened to us.
· The overuse and misuse of antibiotics – in terms of the daftest things humanity has ever done – has to be on par with the popularisation of unicorn food.
I’m assuming that there are some solutions? That we’re not going to spend today listing all the things that can kill us or infect us?
· If you want to explore today subject without all of the asides and cheap one liners, check out an article by Michael Le Page at the New Scientist called evolution is making us sick.
· One of the things that makes the whole concept of dark evolution so fascinating, rather than terrifying, is the sometimes counterintuitive methods that scientists are taking to combat it.
Is that because we misunderstand what evolution is?
· As Michael LePage points out, Evolution is happening all around us, all of the time, even inside us.
· Cancer, that most frightening of words, is an evolutionary disease.
· Cancer’s whole modus operandi is to disguise itself as healthy cells.
· This tricks the body into supplying it with the food oxygen it needs to survive, even though that process kills us and it in the process.
· It’s one of the things that makes the fight against cancer so difficult.
· It’s why treatments like chemotherapy are actually a cocktail of substances unique to each patient.
· There’s no one size fits all solution like paracetamol for a headache.
Surely nature must engineer its own success stories, too?
· Absolutely. I’m taking these directly from the new scientist article in case anyone thinks that I’m some kind of fabulous research biologist.
· Over-hunting has led to some interesting developments in animal populations.
· Animals that are hunted for trophy horns like elephants and some forms of wild sheep are evolving with smaller horns or tusks, partly because we’ve removed goes with the genes for large ones from the gene pool.
· And that, in turn, makes them less valuable or prize-worthy to hunters.
What about urban adaptation?
· In many countries, foxes seem to be prospering in cities and towns far more than they ever did in the wild.
· Lizards feet are getting stickier as they adapt to urban environments and human habitats with more sheer surfaces.
· This is unrelated - I found out a couple of days ago that the only thing that octopus suckers don’t stick to is octopus skin, so they don’t tie themselves in knots.
· Evolution is so cool.
· Some mammals are changing their habits to become nocturnal, so that they face less competition and fewer threats from humans who tend to sleep at night.
· Even some species of fish the Atlantic are adapting to accommodate rising pollution levels, although you probably wouldn’t want to eat them.
· But then, food for us is not fishes’ evolutionary purpose.
When we come back. The unequal fight against dark evolution continues.
And now we’re back. From outer space. Yes, Matt is making me quote the lyrics to I Will Survive. Strangely, he has a sad look upon his face.
Is this your way of telling our listeners that we can survive the dark side of evolution?
· I admit it. That was a cheap and cheesy thing to do. But it did make me weirdly happy.
· We’ve been playing this cat and mouse game with evolution since before we were a microbe in the primordial soup.
· Evolution works in our favour, too.
· And the history of us giving evolution helping hand is as long as our domestication of plants and animals.
· What is really so interesting about this the way that some of the solutions seem to be counterintuitive.
When you say counterintuitive, what do you mean exactly?
· Sometimes the solutions fly in the face of what has been accepted practice.
· Another things we see it really often on this show is the one people adopt new technology, there is a tendency to throw the old thing out and forget that ever existed.
· Newer is better.
· Anyone who’s interested can go back and listen to Episode 38, old technology that’s better than new technology.
· What we often don’t consider is that the new and the old can work alongside one another, and that the combination of the two is stronger than using either one in isolation.
Like the triple cocktail for HIV infections?
· Yes. That was one of the first instances of scientists and doctors looking at these evolutionary principles.
· It’s a bit like the pincer movement in military strategy.
· You’re making a frontal assault and attacking the flanks at the same time.
· Whereas the virus might quickly mutate to counter one threat, the three simultaneous assaults are able to box the virus in.
· It can’t mutate fast enough to break out because it’s coping with 3 enemies, not just one.
· And it has radically changed Life expectancy and quality-of-life of those who are HIV positive.
Is this something we’re also seeing beyond medicine?
· Yes, we are seeing it in agriculture as well.
· Michael LePage quotes the example of food crops that are genetically engineered to produce an insecticide called BT toxin that controls the pests who feed on it.
· The pests quickly become tolerant.
· In the past, that has meant discontinuing that strain of insecticide and looking for something different or, sometimes, just plain stronger.
· But when we do that we are just trying to stay one step ahead in the evolutionary game.
· We’re not actually looking at the underlying principles.
So you go back to the insecticide you used before?
· That has worked in some instances. Simply discontinuing the use of a chemical has led to the resistance to it dying out in pests in a matter of a few years.
· The BT toxin solution is a little more elegant. You grow a mixture and strains of plants, some that are bt toxin engineered and some that aren’t.
You’re growing stuff for the pests to eat?
· Essentially. That ensures a good mixture of pests in the gene pool.
· So you don’t end up with a gene pool of pests that are all resistant to that BT toxin.
· You’re allowing the susceptibility to the toxin to remain and to proliferate.
It can’t be easy to persuade farmers to plant a portion of their crops that will be destroyed?
· No, it isn’t.
· That’s the game that farmers have played with pests for thousands of years.
· It’s only in recent years that we’ve had the luxury of eradicating them on an industrial scale.
· It doesn’t matter if those pests desperately are diseases or fungi, insects or mammals.
· They want to prosper and propagate.
· Their own evolution pushes them towards survival. So, if you want to fight, you’ve got to fight smart.
· And sometimes that means changing behaviour, mindset and approach.
· Often, doing all those things at the same time.
Are we seeing that same approach in other areas of medicine?
· Oh, for sure. I mentioned antibiotic resistance before the break.
· Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow is heading up one of dozens of teams that is looking into ways to reverse antibiotic resistance.
· Cronin’s team is looking at ways of using antibiotics to make bacteria susceptible to them again.
Is this one of the counterintuitive and paradoxical approaches you were talking about?
· Yes. So when we talk about the HIV triple cocktail or the BT toxin, we’re talking about preventing the mutations from happening.
· Here. We’re talking about something slightly different.
· Cronin’s team has developed a model where bacteria is treated with alternating antibiotics that target different aspects of it.
· And, much to their surprise, over time the bacteria start to become vulnerable to the antibiotics again.
I can sense something crispy in the air…
· Yes, we’ve come all this way without mentioning CRISPR.
· Before I brought us here, I wanted to demonstrate that there is a lot more in our evolution mastering toolkit than a frontal assault on DNA.
· Because this is new technology, and we are right to be as wary of it as we are hopeful, as we aren’t really sure what the long term effects of all this snipping and recoding might be.
So we can simply snip out the bits of bacteria that have become hardened to antibiotics, and all is good with the world?
· I guess that’s the dream if you’re a biologist.
· It’s literally reversing evolution.
· And as such, it is actually harder than it sounds.
· And to actually get CRISPR and those modifications inside bacteria, you need to load it into a virus called a bacteriophage.
· Some companies are close to human clinical trials after demonstrating positive results in animal tests.
I’m guessing it’s not a one-size fits all scenario?
· Yes. When you’re talking about altering things at this level, it’s incredibly specific.
· Each of these viral phages will only target that specific strain of bacteria.
· Each strain will need its own phage. And the phages don’t survive in our bloodstream, which could limit their effectiveness.
· They may have to be applied topically, literally sprayed onto wounds or targeted at bacteria in our gut.
· Also, as a safety precaution, these phages are engineered so that they can’t self-replicate.
· Otherwise, like the crew of the ship on Star Trek TNG, we may find the next jump in human evolution killing off those who haven’t made the leap.
If reversing evolution is so hard, can’t we prevent traits from occurring in the first place?
· Yeah. This one is really cool. And some people are experimenting with it.
· Alejandro Chavez and a team at New York’s Columbia University are creating ninja CRISPR…
Your term or theirs?
· Mine. If they could, I bet they would call it the ninja, but if they did I imagine that might affect their funding.
· In this instance you’re effectively hiding CRISPR within a genome.
· Like a ninja, it just sits quietly in the shadows.
· When it comes across a mutation that you tell it you don’t want, it springs into action and cuts it out.
· Early trials in mice have been positive, with the ninja preventing resistance to the antibiotic rifampicin from developing.
Presumably this same technique can be used beyond antibiotics and medicines?
· Yes, we use microorganisms, especially in fermentation processes, for a lot of things. Beer, food flavourings, some medicines like insulin.
· These mutations make the yeasts and microbes burn out over time.
· The ninja could extend their lifespan and effectiveness, by ambushing and preventing the mutations.
· Allowing the microbes to go on doing what they were intended to do.
We’re effectively limiting the mutation rate?
· In this instance they’re cutting out the mutation, but CRISPR could also be used to create bacteria that have lower rates of mutation.
· We can also load additional functionality onto a DNA sequence, so that if it does mutate it will more likely die out.
Will it work for animals too?
· It’s possible we can also introduce these anti-evolutionary traits into plants, and pests like rats and mozzies.
· We can even hack the DNA so that the engineered genes are passed onto all the offspring and not just 50%.
· I said earlier that this whole thing is paradoxical and counter-intuitive: while these guys are trying to prevent, slow down or remove mutations, other scientists are trying to speed them up.
· Some experimental drugs have had success against viruses that code information in RNA, like flu and West Nile viruses.
· These virus already have high mutation rates. So speeding up that process can effectively halt them.
· I’m not sure how scientifically accurate this is. But it’s like jumping on to a moving carousel at a fairground.
· There’s comes a point where it’s moving too fast for you to get a grip and you bounce off.
This has been a surprisingly upbeat show. Do you want to shatter the mood before we leave?
· Not really. Just to reiterate what I said earlier.
· I could just have talked about the CRISPR stuff for the entire show.
· But I thought it was important to talk about the other ways that scientists are trying to stay ahead of the mutation game.
· As I said, we’re not really 100% sure what unleashing CRISP into the wild might do.
It’s a bit like those dumb algorithms you like to talk about?
· Exactly. Putting ninjas in your body sounds cool, but it might lead to you prematurely ageing Jean Luc Picard, If I can mix my metaphors for a second.
· So there’s a responsibility there that we can’t overlook.
· But more importantly we have to remember that we are never going to conquer evolution.
· We need it. Stasis is not a good place to be.
· And we can’t have good evolution without bad evolution.
· Or rather, what’s good for one species is often bad for another.
· So it will always be a race. And a balancing act.
· What this does is improve our toolkit. And it’s the same as with any technological leap.
· We ignore and forget our history at our peril.