Tomorrow’s edition of Nature has a paper that may be interesting for some from a biological / genetic viewpoint. The story they spin around that, however, should serve as advice to all of us how to sell a fairly theoretical study to a top-ranked journal. The authors state their motivation as follows:
As anthropogenic activities are leading to environmental change at unprecedented rapidity, it is critical to understand how the rate of environmental change affects both demographic and genetic underpinnings of evolutionary rescue.
So far so good – so, how would we improve our understanding how the rate of environmental change (I can only assume they refer to climate change etc.) affects the potential of evolutionary adaptation?
We allowed hundreds of populations of Escherichia coli to evolve under variable rates of increase in concentration of the antibiotic rifampicin. We then genetically engineered all combinations of mutations from isolates evolved under lower rates of environmental change. By assessing fitness of these engineered strains across a range of drug concentrations, we show that certain genotypes are evolutionarily inaccessible under rapid environmental change.
Am I naive to translate those findings into: Evolution needs some time? To be fair, the rest of the paper concentrates on the exact genetic mechanisms that lead to the adaptation to rifampicin, which is actually fairly interesting, but I feel one has to bend over backwards to see how a better understanding of how E. Coli adapts to an antiobiotic is informative about the mechanisms that allow (or don’t) evolutionary adaptation of ecosystems under environmental change, and what the “lower” in the title means quantitatively for real ecosystems.