Evolution in Medicine: Combating New Infectious Diseases

Photo courtesy Flickr user shambalileh. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic In late 2002 several hundred people in China came down with a severe form of pneumonia caused by an unknown infectious agent. Dubbed "severe acute respiratory syndrome," or SARS, the disease soon spread to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Canada and led to hundreds of deaths. In March 2003 a team of researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, received samples of a virus isolated from the tissues of a SARS patient. Using a new technology known as a DNA microarray, within 24 hours the researchers had identified the virus as a previously unknown member of a particular family of viruses -- a result confirmed by other researchers using different techniques. Immediately, work began on a blood test to identify people with the disease (so they could be quarantined), on treatments for the disease, and on vaccines to prevent infection with the virus.

An understanding of evolution was essential in the identification of the SARS virus. The genetic material in the virus was similar to that of other viruses because it had evolved from the same ancestor virus. Furthermore, knowledge of the evolutionary history of the SARS virus gave scientists important information about the disease, such as how it is spread. Knowing the evolutionary origins of human pathogens will be critical in the future as existing infectious agents evolve into new and more dangerous forms.

From Science, Evolution, and Creationism, National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine. © 2008 National Academy of Sciences