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Predicting evolutionary moves

Evolution by natural selection may explain biodiversity, but how does natural selection work? Postdoctoral researcher Sijmen Schoustra and colleagues at the Department of Biology’s state-of-the-art Centre for Advanced Research in Environmental Genomics (CAREG) are trying to answer that question.

Schoustra, who earned his doctorate in his native Netherlands, is studying microorganisms to see how their adaptation to new environments produces the genetic mutations required for species themselves to adapt and multiply. He says that understanding these changes will allow scientists not only to predict how microbial organisms and other species will acclimatize in the future, but also to devise actual applications far beyond evolutionary biology. In agriculture, for example, the new insights could lead to more efficient pest-control strategies, while in medicine they could result in better drugs to fight viruses and bacteria.

“What’s exciting about this research is that it gives us the freedom to connect fundamental questions of evolutionary biology with applied questions in areas like antibiotic resistance,” says Schoustra. “It’s a results-oriented approach that’s helping evolutionary biology move from a descriptive to a predictive science.”