The Evolution and Medicine Review

…bridging the gap.

Deadly Australian soil bacterium sheds light on infection hypothesis for Alzheimer’s disease.


Burkholderia pseudomallei

Researchers at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, are the first to completely document the entire route by which bacteria can get into the brain by passing through the nasal mucosa, traveling up the trigeminal nerve, and entering the brain through the brainstem. James St. John and his colleagues infected mice with the soil bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei, common in northern Australia and throughout South East Asia. Once sniffed up from rural dust the bacterium can travel to the brain in under 24 hours. The ensuing infection – melioidosis – is related to the disease glanders in horses and cattle and can lie dormant for up to 60 years, but if it erupts it is fatal in up to 50% of cases. These researchers believe the “royal road” they have discovered into the CNS may be shared by other bacteria like Staphylococcus and acne bacterium as well as by Chlamydia, which has been strongly implicated as a causative agent in Alzheimer’s disease.

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Viruses are the most potent drivers of human evolution


A human T cell (blue) is under attack by HIV (yellow), the virus that causes AIDS.          SciTechDaily

What events have most shaped our human genomes since the split of our ancestors from the ancestors of chimpanzees? What has been the main driving force for human gene evolution? Climate comes to mind; nutrition also; ecology is linked to both. Then there’s social interaction which has driven the evolution of social intelligence. But the one factor that stands out, according to a recent eLIFE paper whose lead author is David Enard from Stanford University, is our interaction with viruses. Viruses have driven over 30% of all the adaptive amino acid changes (non-synonymous mutations) in our genomes, and are the most potent drivers of evolutionary change across mammalian genomes in general.

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New edited volume: Evolutionary Thinking in Medicine

Alvergne, Alexandra, Crispin Jenkinson, and Charlotte Faurie, eds. Evolutionary Thinking in Medicine: From Research to Policy and Practice. Springer, 2016.
(free preview available)

From the publisher’s webpage (
“The aim of this edited book is to provide health professionals, across a wide variety of specialisms, with a targeted access to evolutionary medicine. Throughout the book, the views of both medical and evolutionary scientists on the latest relevant research is presented with a focus on practical implications. The inclusion of boxes explaining the theoretical background as well as both a glossary for technical terms and a lay summary for non- specialists enable medical researchers, public health professionals, policy makers, physicians, students, scholars and the public alike to quickly and easily access appropriate information. This edited volume is thus relevant to anyone keen on finding out how evolutionary medicine can improve the health and well-being of people.”

Download Preface 1 PDF (55.1 KB)
Download Sample pages 2 PDF (181.6 KB)
Download Table of contents PDF (73.8 KB)


Telomere length and the cancer – atherosclerosis trade-off

Human telomeres stained yellow (source Geoset)

Telomeres are caps of tandem repeats of DNA that protect the ends of all chromosomes. They are implicated in ageing because, with successive bouts of cell division, they are gradually whittled away to expose chromosomes to damage and, eventually, an inability to replicate any further. Sarah Tishkoff, together with co-authors Rivka Stone and Abraham Aviv, from the New Jersey Med School, and several others, have been taking a hard look at the evolution of telomere length across species and human groups and argue that there is a direct relationship between telomere length and susceptibility to cancer and atherosclerosis (and other diseases of ageing). Specifically, they describe evidence for an evolutionary trade-off whereby shorter telomeres in some human groups protect against cancer but expose individuals to a greater risk of other diseases in later life.

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Save the dates! Aug. 18-21, 2017 ISEMPH meeting in Groningen with ESEB

The 2017 ISEMPH Meeting will be held August 18th -21st in Groningen, the Netherlands, in conjunction with the XVI Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology. We hope you will join us for what promises to be a milestone event for the field of evolutionary medicine. Full information about the meeting and the Program Committee, chaired by Frank Rühli, is available here. 

The deadline for submitting proposals for regular symposia for European Society for Evolutionary Biology has passed, but symposium proposals on topics specific to evolution and medicine are welcome until July 31, 2016. Proposals may be submitted by members of ISEMPH or ESEB. Symposia that are selected will be notified October 1, 2016.
Proposals require:
1) The names of the primary organizer
(2) The proposed symposium title.
(3) A summary of max 200 words
(4) The names of two invited speakers
Click here to submit a symposia proposal.

Regular abstracts for oral and poster presentations and the ISEMPH and ESEB meeting will be accepted via the registration website from October 1 through December 15, with notification on February 1.


Microbiome of breast links to breast cancer



This is yet another story of the profound and complex ways our microbiomes affect our health.

Scientists Delphine Lee, Alfred Chan and others from the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, Ca have been studying the role of the microbiome in breast cancer, by sampling nipple aspirate fluid. Having first of all scotched the idea that breast ducts are sterile (how can they be when breast milk is teeming with bacteria) they go on to use 16S rRNA sampling to get a handle on species composition and compared the breast duct flora of women with a history of breast cancer, and normal women with no such history.

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Time to abandon the hygiene hypothesis

An important paper from several prominent members of the microbiome and health research community, including Fergus Shanahan and Graham Rook. They are not arguing that we should disregard the rapidly-accumulating mass of research which links our gut microbiome with mental and physical health – far from it – but we should divorce it completely from naive reporting that suggests personal hygiene and hygiene in the home should be moderated because it directly leads to our modern plagues of autoimmunity and allergy – and “a little bit of dirt works wonders for your health”. Domestic hygiene is vital to protect against pathogens, they argue, while microbiome engineering through things like probiotics, will give all of us healthy diversity of “friendly” microorganisms in our guts and elsewhere. This is all to do with re-naming the “hygiene” hypothesis the “old friends” hypothesis. The link leads to the abstract of their paper. You will have to rely on your institution’s subscriptions – or the library – to go further!

Life History Session

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The prodigious Emerald Snow has just sent in this commentary on the life history session. Thanks, Emerald!

Caleb Finch opened this session by showing us an interesting case of antagonistic pleiotropy: the ApoE4 allele in humans. ApoE4 causes inflammation, brain aging, and decreases lifespan, however it also protects against infectious disease. Finch also highlighted the work showing that there may be an interaction effect between ApoE4 and air pollution in producing the negative health effects mentioned.

Later in the session Ben Trumble shared his work on the ApoE4 allele in the Tsimane of Bolivia. He found that ApoE4 carriers showed an increased response to infection, and also had increased cognitive performance. Trumble concludes that ApoE4 carriers are likely to have had, and still have, particular fitness advantages in environments of high parasite burden, such as those inhabited by the Tsimane.

Paul Turke shared his hypothesis regarding food allergies in children, and recommended that clinicians and health educators encourage pregnant people to consume the eight common food allergens during gestation.

Lastly, Daniel Kruger highlighted the ways in which life history theory can help us understand why people engage in health protective or health denigrating behaviors using a sample from the REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) project in Genesee, Michigan. All in all, a very informative session.

Metabolism and mismatch

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Thanks to Nicole Bender for this commentary on the metabolism and mismatch session – 21b.


The session on metabolism and mismatch discussed examples of animal or cell models for human metabolic diseases. Nicolas Rohner described a species of cavefish that shows characteristics of diabetes as an adaptation to periods of starvation, while Robert Chevalier showed the similarity between human kidney disease and the kidney anatomy and physiology in a fish that changed from salt water to fresh water. Sasha Makohon-Moore presented a chimpanzee stem cell adipocyte model to study adaptations in human diet during evolution, while Nicholas Grebe discussed the relationship between oxidative stress in cells and fitness in men. These studies are extremely interesting to evolutionary medicine as they are examples of how to study possible evolutionary pathways of adaptation in humans, or of disease development in humans, beyond theoretical claims. They allow us to formulate and test specific hypotheses and therefore to advance knowledge in the field.

Editor’s note on ISEMPH commentaries

On behalf of Randy and myself I just wanted to thank all conference attendees who have sent in commentaries on the many sessions. I think, in all, I received and posted 19 commentaries – a terrific response! Randy and I hoped that we would get good science journalism rather than something that read like the abstract to a scientific paper and you all rose to the brief! Commentaries were breezy, upbeat, full of good humor, occasionally witty, and above all truly informative. It’s been a great exercise in collective reportage.

I’m personally sorry that circumstances made it impossible for me to come to Duke this year but reading and editing these wonderful contributions brought the conference alive for me. I hope to meet you all in the Netherlands at next year’s annual conference, even if (thanks to the British referendum decision to leave the European Community) I now will have to apply for a visa to attend!!

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