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Universities evolve, looking to Darwin for new medical insights

Humans are the products of millions of years of evolution through natural selection. Yet when it comes to the treatment of disease, physicians and biomedical researchers have long neglected our evolutionary pasts. Now, a number of research institutes are attempting to remedy that by launching new research centers dedicated to the burgeoning field of evolutionary medicine.

The newly minted Center for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich opened its doors in late October. Backed by a $10 million donation from the private Zurich-based Mäxi Foundation, the center will focus on analyzing ancient DNA and bones as well as dissecting microevolutionary changes in human morphology to better understand modern diseases. “It's medical research, but it's looking from an evolutionary perspective,” says the center's director Frank Rühli, a physician who has studied ailments such as atherosclerosis in Egyptian mummies.

From finches to flu: Medical research adapts.

In the US, the Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Informatics—one of ten research centers at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute in Tempe—has been up and running since the beginning of the year. Under the direction of molecular evolutionary biologist Sudhir Kumar, the center is primarily focused on understanding disease through retracing the evolution of DNA sequence changes. “I think evolutionary medicine is exciting because of genomics,” says Kumar. “Genomics allows one to ask ultimate causes of disease—like, why do some people get sick and others do not?”

Randolph Nesse, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor who coined the term 'Darwinian medicine' nearly two decades ago, applauds the new centers' efforts. “The field really needs recognition that evolution has many different uses in medicine,” he says.

But evolutionary biologist Stephen Stearns, another pioneer in the field from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, notes that both new centers are narrowly focused—primarily on the study of infections in ancient contexts in the case of Zurich, and on phylogenomics in Arizona. “I'd say that each of those [areas] is one fiftieth of evolutionary medicine,” Stearns says, arguing that the discipline reflects a much broader application of basic evolutionary thinking to clinical practice and public health. “Evolution touches medical issues at many points.”

Although neither new center is focused on medical or graduate training, many institutions around the world have created stand-alone courses to teach students about evolutionary medicine (Nat. Med. 15, 1338, 2009), and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland is taking the education approach one step further. According to Glenn Starkman, an astrophysicist and director of Case Western's interdisciplinary Institute for the Science of Origins, the university plans to launch a formal graduate program in evolutionary medicine in September 2012. “It's time that medical education gets more focused on evolution,” he says.

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Dolgin, E. Universities evolve, looking to Darwin for new medical insights. Nat Med 16, 1346 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nm1210-1346a

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