Evolutionary Rescue: Meeting the Challenges of the Anthropocene

International experts from evolutionary research discuss adaptations to rapid environmental changes at the SMBE-Satellite Meeting on Evolutionary Rescue at Kiel University

Until Wednesday, 14 September, the "Evolutionary Rescue" meeting takes place at Kiel University. Around 50 international scientists from the fields of population ecology, evolutionary medicine and plant research, among others, accepted the invitation of the Kiel Evolution Center (KEC) to Kiel University to discuss evolutionary strategies for solving societal challenges of the Anthropocene. The event is a satellite meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution (SMBE) and is jointly organised by the KEC, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology (MPI-EB) in Plön and the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel.

The Anthropocene is the current time period that is characterized by dramatic man-made environmental changes, including intensive agriculture, industrialization, comprehensive medical treatments, and current climate change. From an evolutionary biology perspective, these rapid changes exert selection pressure on natural systems: Slow-adapting species, like larger animals and humans, often cannot keep up and show evolutionary mismatches, while short-lived species such as microorganisms have an advantage. This imbalance manifests itself in a number of negative effects: It increases the risk of species extinction and thus a dramatic reduction in biodiversity, can lead to drastic yield losses in agriculture, and threatens human health through the rapid evolution and spread of pathogens and the rapid development of resistance to drugs such as antibiotics.

"Populations exposed to such drastic changes can avoid extinction if they are able to adapt through natural selection, which is a process termed evolutionary rescue," explains KEC board member Professor Tal Dagan, co-organiser of the meeting. Therefore, evolutionary rescue can help to overcome evolutionary mismatches. Moreover, it is also the basis for the rapid evolution of pathogens, as for example currently seen for the SARS-CoV-2 virus and which we usually aim to prevent. "With this conference, we want to bring together perspectives from different scientific disciplines to further explore the phenomenon of evolutionary rescue in the Anthropocene and to derive possible solutions for environmental protection, food production and medicine from it," Dagan continues.

Using the principle of evolutionary rescue

In around 25 lectures and various discussion forums over four conference days, the participants exchange their research approaches, aiming at a precise understanding of the selection processes in natural systems that are influenced by humans. The main topics of the conference include evolutionary strategies for avoiding resistance in antibiotic administration or in tumour therapy, the influence of fisheries on fish stocks or the development of resistance in agriculturally relevant plant pests. While more and more details about such interrelationships are being gathered in evolutionary research, the approach of evolutionary rescue still receives little attention overall. "We therefore want to give more weight to such an evolutionary perspective and, in the future direction of our research, focus in particular on translation," emphasises Dagan, who is organising the meeting together with Dr Hildegard Uecker from MPI-EB and Dr Reid Brennan from GEOMAR.

In order to promote this evolutionary perspective, the Kiel Evolution Center (KEC) at Kiel University has been successfully working for several years to bundle all relevant research initiatives in the Kiel area. In the meantime, these are networked in several large-scale research projects and centres and work closely with various institutions in the region, for example the MPI-EB, the GEOMAR Helmholtz center or also the Research Centre Borstel. "In recent years, together with our strong partners, we have succeeded in forming a hotspot for evolutionary research at Kiel University and in the Kiel region that is unique in Germany and brings together cutting-edge interdisciplinary research on the topic of evolution," emphasises KEC-spokesperson Professor Hinrich Schulenburg. "With this conference and many other activities, we want to highlight Kiel's excellence in this field internationally and promote networking with important partner institutions worldwide," Schulenburg continues. The common goal of the evolutionary researchers is to counteract the negative effects of the Anthropocene on many levels and to further develop the principle of evolutionary rescue as a basis for solution strategies, for example in evolutionary medicine, environmental protection or agriculture.

Scientific contact:

Prof. Tal Dagan
Board Member „Kiel Evolution Center“ (KEC),
Kiel University:
+49 (0) 431-880-5712


Group photo
© Christian Urban, Kiel University

Around 50 researchers met in Kiel to discuss evolutionary strategies for solving societal challenges of the Anthropocene.

A woman speaking in front of an audience
© Christian Urban, Kiel University

Professor Tal Dagan from the KEC (in the picture) organised the meeting together with Dr Hildegard Uecker from the MPI-EB and Dr Reid Brennan from Geomar.

A talk in a lecture room
© Christian Urban, Kiel University

Participants discussed the phenomenon of evolutionary rescue and derived solutions for environmental protection, food production and medicine.

More information:

About KEC

The Kiel Evolution Center (KEC) is an interactive platform at Kiel University that aims to better coordinate evolutionary researchers in Kiel and surroundings. Furthermore, under the key term of "Translational Evolutionary Research", specific bridges should be built between fundamental research and practical applications. Alongside the promotion of science, the focus of the Kiel Evolution Center also expressly includes teaching and public relations work. In addition to CAU, there are researchers involved from the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel (GEOMAR), the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön (MPI-EB) and the Research Center Borstel (FZB), Leibniz Center for Medical and Life Sciences.

Press contact:

Christian Urban
Science communication „Kiel Life Science",
Kiel University:
+49 (0) 431-880-1974