The Red Queen Hypothesis


“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

As the winter semester begins I find myself busier than ever. Though just a week has passed, I feel like a chicken with my head cut off. Or the Red Queen. You see the Red Queen must run with all her might just to stay in the same place, and twice all her might to go anywhere! No one said graduate school would be easy and I never was under the illusion that it would be — but at the moment I really just want to stop running!

Lucky for me then, the Red Queen is an epidemiological/evolutionary hypothesis and not just a quaint children’s (?) book character — thus I can kill two birds with one stone with this post. Graduate school is stressful AND a pivotal scientific concept. (Yippee!)

The Red Queen Hypothesis — humans are in an evolutionary arms race with pathogens. As our immune systems evolve new defense mechanisms against pathogens, pathogens evolve new ways to resist those defenses.

Humans have an advantage in that we have learned how to harness antibiotics for our own use. In 1928, a very messy, and extremely lucky, scientist named Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Since then various scientists have harnessed other antibiotics from nature and developed them for medical use.

BUT… this would not be much of an arms race if the bacteria did not strike back. As it turns out, our use of antibiotics has forced the evolution of resistance in bacteria. Bacteria have much shorter generation times than humans, allowing them to develop this resistance very quickly. Now we are facing the end of the antibiotic era (check out this article: PBS Antibiotic Resistance). This is a HUGE problem for public health.

In public health, the focus has been slowly shifting away from infectious diseases towards chronic diseases as populations age and incidence of infection has decreased. As we now stare the end of antibiotics in the eye — where do we go now? A global pandemic is becoming more and more possible each day that passes — with each antibiotic distributed.

Humans are the Red Queen now more than ever — especially graduate students!

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