Biological Sciences

What can toxicology learn from evolution?


Emily Monosson, Freelance Environmental Toxicologist


Toxicology, the study of adverse effects of chemicals on living organisms, is a broad field that brings together biology, chemistry, medicine, and other fields such as ecology. My research is focused on synthesizing the vast body of literature in this field to collect existing studies that approach toxicology from an evolutionary perspective.  It is important to make these studies accessible and available to other toxicology researchers so that they might consider the systems they study in the context of evolution.

One key example is contemporary evolution of resistance to various chemical agents, which can lead to antibiotic resistance in bacteria, pesticide resistant lice, or drug-resistant cancer cells, to name a few. In addition, some vertebrate species have evolved resistance to environmental contaminants.

Bringing together knowledge about the biological processes enabling rapid evolutionary change, and putting it in the context of the longer evolutionary history of life’s toxic defense system is not only fascinating, but could provide new insights into how living things interact with existing and novel industrial chemicals such as the relationship between steroid hormone receptors and endocrine disrupting chemicals – an important goal for toxicology.


I spend my days in a coffee shop connected to the internet in order to virtually roam the cavernous halls of the world’s online scientific libraries via databases at the University of Massachusetts.


This is an evolving project (no pun intended).  The book Evolution in a Toxic World: life’s response to chemical hazards, published in 2012, is one outcome of this work. I also maintain a blog by the same name ( where I post articles and relevant information on the topic, and intend to set up workshops encouraging cross disciplinary interaction.

The work is just beginning, so a lot remains t obe done. I am currently working on a follow-up book that is focused on contemporary evolution and health.

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