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Can Threatened Species Evolve Their Way Out of Trouble?

• June 01, 2011 • 8:37 AM

Ecologist Andrew Gonzalez explains that experiments on yeast suggest that threatened species may be able to evolve fast enough — under the right conditions — to survive.

Untold numbers of species are on the brink of extinction. What can do we about it?

Dr. Andrew Gonzalez, an ecologist at McGill University, has a brand new approach for thinking about saving species. In this week’s Curiouser & Curiouser podcast, Gonzalez talks about the possibility of threatened species getting out of danger through evolution, by changing their genetic code to adapt to new conditions.

At first glance, the idea seems crazy. We think of evolution taking place over very long periods, with gradual changes in species over time. How could slow-moving evolution have any impact on all of the species getting pushed off a cliff by fast-moving environmental changes? Gonzalez has simulated the effect of rapid environmental change on a species in his laboratory.

He finds that, amazingly, species are able to evolve to new conditions incredibly quickly and effectively, under the right conditions. Though this experiment was done on a species of yeast, the general principles of the experiment are likely to hold true across species large and small, providing a new way — and new hope — in the race to save threatened species.

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Music used in this edition of Curiouser & Curiouser includes Bring It On Vox by Jamie Miller and David Matheson and Ode to a Baby Snowstorm by Ghostly Dust Machine.

Jai Ranganathan
Dr. Jai Ranganathan is a biologist and his research focuses on questions of species conservation. He can be reached at jai.ranganathan at gmail.com.

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