The factors driving evolved herbicide resistance at a national scale

  • Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages529536 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0470-1
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Repeated use of xenobiotic chemicals has selected for the rapid evolution of resistance, threatening health and food security at a global scale. Strategies for preventing the evolution of resistance include cycling and mixtures of chemicals and diversification of management. We currently lack large-scale studies that evaluate the efficacy of these different strategies for minimizing the evolution of resistance. Here we use a national-scale data set of occurrence of the weed Alopecurus myosuroides (black-grass) in the United Kingdom to address this. Weed densities are correlated with assays of evolved resistance, supporting the hypothesis that resistance is driving weed abundance at a national scale. Resistance was correlated with the frequency of historical herbicide applications, suggesting that evolution of resistance is primarily driven by intensity of exposure to herbicides, but was unrelated directly to other cultural techniques. We find that populations resistant to one herbicide are likely to show resistance to multiple herbicide classes. Finally, we show that the economic costs of evolved resistance are considerable: loss of control through resistance can double the economic costs of weeds. This research highlights the importance of managing threats to food production and healthcare systems using an evolutionarily informed approach in a proactive not reactive manner.

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The authors would like to thank all of the farmers who have kindly allowed us to survey their fields and provided field management data for the analyses. This work was funded by BBSRC (BB/L001489/1) and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (Cereals and Oilseeds).

Author information


  1. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

    • Helen L. Hicks
    • , Shaun R. Coutts
    • , Dylan Z. Childs
    •  & Robert P. Freckleton
  2. Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, UK

    • David Comont
    • , Laura Crook
    • , Richard Hull
    •  & Paul Neve
  3. Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, London, UK

    • Ken Norris


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The project was conceptualized by H.L.H., R.P.F., P.N., D.Z.C. and K.N.; the survey was designed by R.P.F. and H.L.H., the resistance assays were designed by P.N. and D.C. Statistical analysis was undertaken by H.L.H., R.P.F., S.R.C. and D.C. Data were collected by H.L.H., D.C., L.C. and R.H. The inital manuscript was drafted by H.L.H. and R.P.F., with H.L.H., R.P.F., D.Z.C., S.R.C., D.C., P.N. and K.N. contributing to the writing. Funding was acquired by R.P.F., D.Z.C., P.N. and K.N.

Competing interests

R.P.F., D.Z.C., L.C., H.L.H., S.R.C., R.H. and D.C. declare no competing financial interests; P.N. supervises a PhD student co-funded by Bayer (not part of this project).

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert P. Freckleton.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Tables 1–5, Supplementary Experimental Procedures

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary