Predicting evolution

The evolution of life is the hallmark of the natural sciences. Evolution is a central mechanism in the origins of the astounding diversity of life and has a central role in the functioning of biological systems. Understanding how life has evolved in interaction with the environment has been at the forefront of science ever since Darwin. Evolutionary knowledge is also a powerful tool outside the biological sciences, used in evolutionary medicine to understand disease, and in artificial intelligence to design self-organising life. More recently, emphasis has shifted to a forward-looking perspective of evolution, underscoring the importance of understanding how species can adapt, in an evolutionary sense, to current and future changes of their world.

This requires a deep understanding of the processes that play a role in evolutionary processes across different levels of hierarchy and scale. Recently discovered evolutionary mechanisms, such as non-genetic forms of inheritance, genomic networks and the dynamic feedback between organisms and their environments emphasize the need to formulate new principles on adaptation mechanisms and transmission of information to the next generation that allow us to predict evolutionary potential and trajectories. The real game-changer will be to predict the course of evolution for the adaptation of current species to their environment.

A second requirement for a predictive framework of evolution will be insight in external conditions that determine the rate of changes on our planet, such as the probability and magnitude of major planetary events including volcanic eruptions, comet impact, changes in the ocean currents but especially also the current anthropogenic changes such global climate change, as it is this environment which will determine the selection to which evolution can respond to.

Predicting evolution can be instrumental in solving some of the major challenges that human societies are facing today, such as the development of bacterial and viral resistance, pesticide resistance, prevention of the outbreak of new diseases and epidemics, and adaptation of species to urbanisation and climate change. Predictive insight should also enable us to leverage evolutionary processes to promote biodiversity conservation, the slow process of the formation of new species, or to steer artificial evolution in plant and animal breeding. A predictive understanding of evolution is also essential for the de-novo synthesis of life and for steering life in potential extraterrestrial settings.