Friday, April 4, 2014

This Ain't A Scene, It's An Evo-Lutionary Arms Race 

The Cold War Heats Up1

 It's 1947 in post World War 2 Germany; Russia tightens its grip upon Berlin and blockades its former Allies from East Berlin.2 Tension rises between the Russians and allies. America announces the Marshall Plan, offering support to a recovering Europe, starting with reviving the industries of Germany. Stalin responds by extending the reach of his power by creating the Eastern Bloc, a coalition of communist states in Europe that was led by the USSR, to prevent America from buying influence in Europe.3 The Cold War Begins; America is pitted against their former ally, the USSR, in a dash for power. With expanding the missile gaps, a race for space, and a number of heated stand-offs, the arms race of the Cold War was in full effect.4  This was one of the biggest stalemates in world history, lasting for years and changing the USSR and America to a completely different countries by its end. Through all but its threats, secrets, and world changing effects, it still pales in comparison to a larger, grander war, one involving virtually every being on the planet. Slowly changing them, evolving them over time into greater adapted animals, yet still keeping them in an evolutionary deadlock with their opponents. I'm talking about the arms race that is co-evolution. 

 Co-evolution? More like Co-re-EVIL-ution? Right?

Huh? Huh? Am I right? Am I right?5
 Horrible puns aside, co-evolution, the evolutionary arms race is a deadlock between predator and prey, each one trying to gain an evolutionary advantage over the other. Take the relation between the cheetah and gazelle for example. The cheetah, a predator adapted for stealthy and speed, against it a gazelle would be easy prey, if it were not for the gazelle’s own adaptations. Where cheetahs are designed for encountering prey, gazelles are designed for avoiding dangers.6 They are agile, have quick reflexes, and are fast, though not as fast as a cheetah. It seems as though the two are locked in a stalemate, but even with all their adaptations some gazelle fail to escape the feline speedsters, and it is this tip towards the one side of the scale that will stoke the fires of the evolutionary arms race. Over the years, as the weaker gazelles become prey to the cheetahs and the stronger, better adapted members survive, you begin to see a slow change in the population, maybe faster gazelles that can jump higher, run faster and farther, far enough to escape being fancy feast for a ferocious feline. This small advance now puts cheetahs at a disadvantage, and puts the task of developing better adaptations upon them.6 Through all this, though, the two continue to reach a constant balance. 

"Crouching Gazelle, Flipping Cheetah"7
 The Red Queen and The Race Of Our Lives

The cheetah becomes faster, the gazelle jumps higher. If this continues their adaptations will only grow bigger. In a million years we may have gazelles leaping through trees as if it were a kung-fu movie and cheetahs with claws so big, they can cut a tree down in one swipe. A constant progression, only to reach the same relation as before; there is a hypothesis for this type of co-evolution, appropriately named “The Red Queen Hypothesis.”6  “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,” says the Red Queen to Alice.8 This is seen in many animals of the animal kingdom, such as the cheetah/gazelle relationship, but also between us humans and one of our most influential predators, parasites. Their need to use us as a host is so great that we developed sex in order to try and fend them off, to some success.9 But even though we developed new weapons and defenses and combined our DNA to strengthen the next generation against them, they retaliated with their own set of adaptations.9,10 Better camouflage, new infection methods, hiding themselves from our immune systems all keep these microscopic predators a constant and relevant threat to us. If it were not for our human ingenuity creating medicines to help eliminate them, our position in this evolutionary arms race would put us far from grabbing gold. As it now stands right now, we're barely bronze.
Red Queen11

2 Miller, Roger Gene (2000). To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948–1949. Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 0-89096-967-1
6 Zuk, M. Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.
8 Carroll, Lewis, and Ralph Steadman. Through the Looking Glass. New York: C. N. Potter; Distributed by Crown, 1973.
9 Kurtz,Joachim.Sex, parasites and resistance – an evolutionary approach. Zoology. 106, (4) 2003: 327–339.
10 Hillis, Daniel, W. Co-evolving parasites improve simulated evolution as an optimization procedure. Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena. 42 (1–3) 1990: 228–234.


  1. In The Art of Being a Parasite, Combes states that apoptosis is the most original arms race. Apoptosis is genetically programmed cell death that can be used to defend against parasites. A cell that is infected will cause its own death in order to prevent other cells from being infected. This adaptation has caused a bacteria and viruses to fight back. Bacteria and viruses have the ability to send out signals that block apoptosis. They can also induce apoptosis when it is favorable for the parasite. Thus, the cell and bacteria/virus engage in a back and forth arms race.

  2. Your commented on how sex helps organisms in the evolutionary arms race better adapt and evolve with parasites. However, as we all know some species reproduce asexually. The whiptail lizard is one example. In vertebrate zoology my class learned that this lizard is produced by a hybrid cross between 2 bisexual species. The offspring are female clones that arise from an unfertilized ova. This limited genetic diversity constrains adaption to climate change, but uses less energy than sexual reproduction. Asexual reproduction benefits the lizards when the environment is stable. In some rare instances like the whiptails, genetic diversity is not always necessary.

  3. The arms race is a never ending battle between species to stay one step ahead of the evolutionary advancements of the other. While the cheetah and gazelle are a great example, the cuckoo bird and reed warbler are also very good examples. The cuckoo is more of a parasite that a predator such as the cheetah, but the same aspect applies with co-evolution. As the reed warbler evolves to notice the cuckoo egg, the cuckoo modifies its egg to be less recognizable. This constant battle is their version of co-evolution. Co-evolution and the red queen hypothesis can be looked at in a very scientific way at this website:

  4. First of all, I really enjoyed reading your post, and all of the examples given in the comments. You mentioned that the pressure placed on us by parasites may have been the driving force toward the evolution of sex. Sexual reproduction between just one male and female creates an outstanding amount of genetic diversity, that once you take into account all of the genetic diversity possible, once must wonder just how parasites continue to thrive against it. My favorite example of how parasites fight back is that of Trypanosoma brucei, the causal agent of African Sleeping Sickness. At any one time, the trypanosome is coated with a variable surface glycoprotein (VSG) which is easily recognized by the adaptive immune system. However as soon as the body is about to launch its final attack, the VSGs of all the trypanosomes suddenly change, and the immune system is put back at square one. In effect, the human's immune system becomes over-worked and can eventually kill the individual, rather than the parasite actively attacking it. Aren't parasites cool?!

  5. Your example of the cheetah and gazelle provided a great picture of the evolutionary arms race. And all of the examples provided above are also great for the arms race your describing as well. However, I wonder if you may have gone into more detail on the differences between the Evolutionary Arms Race and the Red Queen Hypothesis? Although these processes are very similar in that species that evolve in light of the other species that are associated with it, they are not the same thing. In class, we talked about the Red Queen hypothesis being distinctly different from an Arms Race because it eventually reaches equilibrium. In this case, we can be certain that we'll never see Superman-like gazelles or X-Men-like cheetahs because the evolutionary progression of these animals will be in constant equilibrium with the other keeping both organisms at the same place, while in an evolutionary arms race, there lies the potential that new species will eventually evolve just as America and Russia eventually changed how they were as countries in their own Arms Race. The Red Queen Process is particularly valuable to parasites who have to live in an equilibrium with their host in order to survive. Although the host may change its filters of encountering and being compatible to prevent parasitic relationships, parasites do not want to change too much to widen these filters or the accompanying virility may destroy their host, which would destroy the parasite in the end. Without an equilibrium of coevolution in which the species change while staying in the same place, a parasite would not survive.

  6. I remember reading about this over spring break by the pool. My friend looks over and is shocked, "parasite sex? What is your teacher making you read?" Of course, I had to explain to her why it was so relevant. I was discussing something similar to the Red Queen Hypothesis and the evolutionary arms races with a friend in class in reference to influenza and illnesses becoming drug-resistant (we were discussing MDR-TB). We eventually came to the conclusion that one day illnesses will become resistant to all known drugs and it will be a check-mate in the game of chess with illnesses vs. humans. At this point I ask, has the evolutionary arms race reached a stalemate, with the humans unable to keep up as quickly as the illnesses in reference to developing drugs, etc? Given, this scenario may be one that never occurs, but it was interesting for the two of us to think and I'm fairly sure we scared all of our non-pre-med classmates. This also made me think back to when we discusses how taking too many drugs ultimately makes us sicker and weaker. It is almost as if we are giving the illnesses- specifically parasites- the upper leg in the arms race.

  7. I really enjoyed the analogy you had in the beginning. The cold war is a good way of look at a red-queen stand off. I was wondering why you thought we would barely get bronze. I agree that our understanding of parasites has really decreased our encounters with parasites, but if you were to ask me, I would think we are definitely going to win this race. We are on the verge of eradicating Guinea Worm Disease, a terrible parasite that disabled millions of people around the world only three decades ago. It is now only endemic in five African countries with cases numbering in the dozens. I think the evolutionary race between humans in parasites is no longer between our bodies as genetic bags of information, but a race between a parasite ability to survive the human intellect. As we have undoubtedly become less and less affected by parasites, many of us who wouldn't have survived to reproduce centuries ago, are living long and prosperous lives, starting families that continue that trend. Our red queen has been replaced by our minds.

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