Life evolved in a toxic world long before humans began polluting it, according to a University of Massachusetts environmental toxicologist, who added that understanding life’s evolutionary response to environmental poisons can help people to fight destructive effects.

Emily Monosson, an adjunct professor in the UMass Department of Environmental Conservation and author of the book “Evolution in a Toxic World,” said that an understanding of both how rapidly and how slowly life can evolve to fight toxic pollutants is largely missing from toxicology, which is the science of understanding the effects of poisons on life, particularly human life.

Monosson, who spoke Thursday at Harvard’s Haller Hall in an event sponsored by the Harvard Museum of Natural History, said lessons from our evolutionary past that might help us avoid trouble have been ignored by toxicologists and industry alike.

Monosson said she wrote the book in an effort to get toxicologists to think differently about their field, which she said still uses tools that are 40 years old and badly need updating.
“The basic point of doing this book is to get toxicologists to look differently at our field,” Monosson said. “Toxicology needs to change.”

Examples abound on the ramifications of rapid evolution, she said. Bacteria reproduce so fast that they quickly evolve resistance to drugs used to treat disease, resulting in frightening new ailments such as multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. Similarly, insects can rapidly evolve resistance to pesticides, and weeds can evolve resistance to herbicides.

Read more at Harvard Gazette.

Published On: August 18, 2012

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