People did not understand the mechanisms of inheritance, or genetics, at the time Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were developing their idea of natural selection. This lack of knowledge was a stumbling block to understanding many aspects of evolution. The predominant (and incorrect) genetic theory of the time, blending inheritance, made it difficult to understand how natural selection might operate. Darwin and Wallace were unaware of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel's 1866 publication "Experiments in Plant Hybridization", which came out not long after Darwin's book, On the Origin of Species. Scholars rediscovered Mendel’s work in the early twentieth century at which time geneticists were rapidly coming to an understanding of the basics of inheritance. Initially, the newly discovered particulate nature of genes made it difficult for biologists to understand how gradual evolution could occur. However, over the next few decades scientists integrated genetics and evolution in what became known as the modern synthesis—the coherent understanding of the relationship between natural selection and genetics that took shape by the 1940s. Generally, this concept is generally accepted today. In short, the modern synthesis describes how evolutionary processes, such as natural selection, can affect a population’s genetic makeup, and, in turn, how this can result in the gradual evolution of populations and species. The theory also connects population change over time (microevolution), with the processes that gave rise to new species and higher taxonomic groups with widely divergent characters, called (macroevolution).
Evolution and Flu VaccinesEvery fall, the media starts reporting on flu vaccinations and potential outbreaks. Scientists, health experts, and institutions determine recommendations for different parts of the population, predict optimal production and inoculation schedules, create vaccines, and set up clinics to provide inoculations. You may think of the annual flu shot as media hype, an important health protection, or just a briefly uncomfortable prick in your arm. However, do you think of it in terms of evolution?
The media hype of annual flu shots is scientifically grounded in our understanding of evolution. Each year, scientists across the globe strive to predict the flu strains that they anticipate as most widespread and harmful in the coming year. They base this knowledge on how flu strains have evolved over time and over the past few flu seasons. Scientists then work to create the most effective vaccine to combat those selected strains. Pharmaceutical companies produce hundreds of millions of doses in a short period in order to provide vaccinations to key populations at the optimal time.
Because viruses, like the flu, evolve very quickly (especially in evolutionary time), this poses quite a challenge. Viruses mutate and replicate at a fast rate, so the vaccine developed to protect against last year’s flu strain may not provide the protection one needs against the coming year’s strain. Evolution of these viruses means continued adaptions to ensure survival, including adaptations to survive previous vaccines.