NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Cost of Evolution Runs into Billions

September 17, 2001

Humans are causing evolution on a grand scale -- and it is costing us hundreds of billions of dollars each year, says a Harvard University biologist. The sooner we realize it, he says, the sooner we can slow evolution down.

Every time a strain of bacteria becomes resistant to an antibiotic, or a weed mutates so it can thrive after being sprayed with a herbicide, there is a financial cost to humankind, Stephen Palumbi points out.

  • He estimates that cost to be at least $100 billion every year in the U.S. alone.
  • The emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of the bug Staphylococcus aureus and the loss of crops due to herbicide and pesticide resistance are two key problems, he says.
  • HIV is the fastest-evolving, says Palumbi; it evolves so quickly, it forms a new "quasi-species" inside every person it infects.
  • Decision-makers need to anticipate evolution and build it into public policy, he says.

He thinks humans must implement strategies to slow evolution down as a matter of urgency.

  • Interspersing the use of one herbicide with another is one option.
  • Another ploy is to withhold a powerful treatment as a last resort, to prevent resistance developing.
  • Vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic, is now used as a treatment of last resort in many hospitals around the world. It is the only option for use against superbugs such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant S. aureus).

Robert May of the Royal Society, London agrees. "So many of the triumphalist claims that we can eradicate something like infectious disease could only be made by someone who didn't appreciate the moving nature of the target," he told New Scientist.

Source: Andrea Graves, "Cost of evolution runs into billions," New Scientist, September 7, 2001.

 

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