Monday, March 12, 2012

Evolutionary biology vs. evolved biology

Once, during a medical exam, the doctor asked me what I did. I said I was an evolutionary biologist, to which he replied, "oh, so not a creation biologist?" His tone of voice made it clear he thought it was funny that I had to specify evolutionary, as though a biologist in Berkeley could possibly not believe in evolution. Considering where his hands were at the time, I didn't stop to explain to him what the term "evolutionary biologist" means. Every biologist knows, or should, that Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." The vast majority of biologists, of all disciplines not only know about evolution, but accept it as a necessary part of any complete explanation for the things they study. But a large portion of biologists don't regularly think about evolution; it is not the part of the explanation they are interested in. A large (and I think increasing) proportion of biologists study the interactions of atoms, molecules, organelles, genes, cells, etc. And while they may connect their work to evolution in some way, they are not basically asking questions about evolution, but about the details of the proximate mechanisms which make organisms work. That these mechanisms are the result of evolution is often not particularly relevant to the present question.

An example: A couple of years ago I attended a workshop on bioinformatics in aging research. There was a dinner the night before the talks started, and the bioinformaticist organizing the workshop asked me about my training and research. I said, "well I study the evolution of demographic patterns, particularly how constraints on natural selection lead observed demographic patterns to differ from the predictions of evolutionary theory." He replied, "Oh, but you are also trained in biology?" What he meant by this, I discovered, was that I also had some training in the molecular nuts and bolts that to him are biology. Evolution is a process that shapes biology, but in his view, and I think the view of many of the people there, does not in itself count as biology. Asking him if he ever incorporated evolution into his work, he explained that he had, comparing how networks of gene interactions differed between fruit fly and nematode. Fair enough, comparative biology is surely the study of evolution, but his approach to it required no technique or concept from evolutionary theory. He produces good and useful science, and gives no more daily thought to evolution than I give to promoter regions. I am certain that he would not be offended to be described as a good biologist who believes in evolution, but is not an evolutionary biologist.

A definition from wikipedia: "Evolutionary biology is a sub-field of biology concerned with the study of the evolutionary processes that have given rise to the diversity of life." This is somewhat too narrow in my view, but it is close enough given that it is past my bedtime.

This has all come to mind because of the post I wrote yesterday, about weeds evolving resistance to Monsanto's best-selling herbicide, and the failure of Monsanto's biologists to predict this. A good friend of mine, who is deeply knowledgeable about matters environmental and agricultural, responded by asking how Monsanto's biologists could have failed to predict the apparently obvious facts I was pointing out unless they were A, Tools; B, Fools; or C, having their results manipulated by suits. This is a reasonable and interesting question, and I'll venture an answer. My guess is that they were neither A nor B, and that C went on but was not a major factor. Monsanto did have an enormous financial stake in convincing regulators that weeds would not evolve resistance to Roundup, but they also had an enormous stake in having weeds actually not evolve resistance to Roundup.  So my guess is they honestly thought it was a highly unlikely outcome.

Why did they think so, despite being smart, honest biologists? Because they weren't trained in, or primarily thinking about, evolution as it occurs in nature. They were plant geneticist and bioengineers, spending many years and countless millions of dollars to unravel the finest details of how Roundup kills plants and how to build a crop that will have resistance to it (without passing that resistance on to its offspring). That was an enormous challenge, and their success was unprecedented. They had achieved what many, even within their own company, must have thought was an impossible SciFi dream.

Surely someone was assigned to think deeply about the problem of whether weeds would evolve resistance, but surely that someone had been involved in the project for years, and was so wrapped up in the grotesque details of the genetic magic they had just achieved that no perspective was possible. In other words, they couldn't see the field for the soybeans. A person highly trained in artificial selection, and used to that way of thinking, will think of the evolution of weed resistance in those terms, despite the fact that natural selection has inherent advantages.

In hindsight, their logical errors are obvious, probably even to them. In foresight, reasonable and well intentioned people frequently fail to think of highly relevant and potentially obvious things. This is particularly likely if those things require a perspective they don't possess, doubly particularly if they are thinking deeply about the problem from a very different perspective. Monsanto had many biologists who knew about evolution, used a particular type of evolution as a tool, and thought about evolution. But my guess is they didn't have any evolutionary biologists.


jte said...

I'm not sure you're quite right that, at the time they were developing Roundup-Ready GMO seed, Monsanto had a vested interest in weeds failing to evolve resistance to Roundup. They certainly had such an interest through the expiration of their patent on glyphosate, but after that, the value of their interest in Roundup-ready crops depends to a decent extent on their share in the glyphosate market.

Now, according to Wiki [ ], as of 2009, even post patent on glyphosate, Roundup & Roundup-ready seeds account for 50% of Monsanto's revenues (10% to Roundup itself, 40% to the seeds).

So that shows that their patents on the seeds gives them ongoing interest in non-resistant weeds. But starting in 2014, Roundup-ready seeds start going off patent (in the order in which they were introduced: soy, then corn, then etc.).

Once that kicks in, it won't be long until it is in Monsanto's interest that all weeds be immune to glyphosate--assuming their biologists have been able to engineer a new combo of herbicide and immune crop seeds. That way they get their market share back.

dan levitis said...

depending upon how fast these resistant weeds spread, they could easily cost Monsanto billions a year. It could also make it that much harder for them to get their next round of resistant crops approved.