Essays on Science and SocietyScience & SciLifeLab Prize

Stop, Go, and Evolve

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Science  06 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6163, pp. 1186
DOI: 10.1126/science.1247567

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Summary

Pathogens evolve fast. RNA-based viruses, such as influenza and HIV, incorporate mutations in their genomes at the brisk rate of one change per 105 bases each time they replicate (the error rate in our own genome is one per ∼1010 bases) (1). DNA-based viruses and bacteria have per–base pair rates closer to our own, but these rates still dwarf ours because of their vastly shorter generation times (2). How can our immune systems cope with this astounding rate of evolution? Part of the answer lies in a remarkable real-time Darwinian process that enables our defenses to adapt at breakneck speed.