Evolution teaches us that every living thing adapts to its environment, over many generations, and leading in many different directions. As a result, diversity surrounds us. We have tiny single-celled organisms like bacteria and yeast that reproduce constantly, but we also have larger organisms that reproduce over hundreds of years.
Typically when we think of studying evolution, we think of studying the fossil record. However, modern evolutionary biologists like Sally Otto, professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of British Columbia, are looking to observe evolution as it happens. By choosing organisms that reproduce rapidly, such as yeast, evolutionary processes can happen within hours.
Studying these processes is possible because we now have the technology needed to sequence DNA, the blueprints that hold the instructions for how different living things are built. When cells divide, they have to make a copy of their DNA so that there is a copy for each new cell. From time to time there are errors in the copies, and these are called mutations. Sometimes mutations result in new traits that are well suited for a particular environment. In the lab, Otto can apply different incentives for adaptation, such as exposure to toxic substances, and then look for genetic mutations and track how new traits and adaptations spread to better understand how organisms evolve.
Capturing these responses is critical to our understanding of the living world. Otto explains that “evolution impacts every aspect of our lives: from the viruses inside us, to the foods that we eat, to the forest and fish around us. Everything is evolving all the time… If we want to design better drugs, if we want to plant trees in places that make sense for those trees, we’d better understand how genetically diverse they are and how selection is acting on those populations; otherwise we make unwise decisions. And that’s in medicine, in agriculture, in forestries and fisheries.”