These technologies may help more animals and plants survive climate change
This article originally appeared inOne Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
Along the west coast of South Florida and the Keys, Florida Bay is a nursery for young Caribbean spiny lobsters, a favorite local delicacy. Growing up in small shallow basins, they are especially vulnerable to warmer, more saline water. Climate change has brought tidal floods, bleached coral reefs and toxic algal blooms to the state, and since the 1990s, the population of the Caribbean spiny lobster has dropped some 20 percent, diminishing an important food for snapper, grouper, and herons, as well as people. In 1999, marine ecologist Donald Behringer discovered the first known virus among lobsters, Panulirus argus virus—about a quarter of juveniles die from it before they mature.
“When the water is warm PaV1 progresses much more quickly,” says Behringer, who is based at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Caribbean spiny lobsters are only one example of many species that are struggling in the era of climate change, both at sea and on land. As the oceans heat up, absorbing greenhouse gases and growing more acidic, marine diseases are emerging at an accelerated rate. Marine creatures are migrating to new places, and carrying pathogens with them. The latest grim report in the journal Science, states that if global warming continues at the current rate, the extinction of marine species will rival the Permian–Triassic extinction, sometimes called the “Great Dying,” when volcanoes poisoned the air and wiped out as much as 90 percent of all marine life 252 million years ago.
Similarly, on land, climate change has exposed wildlife, trees and crops to new or more virulent pathogens. Warming environments allow fungi, bacteria, viruses and infectious worms to proliferate in new species and locations or become more virulent. One paper modeling records of nearly 1,400 wildlife species projects that parasites will double by 2070 in the far north and in high-altitude places. Right now, we are seeing the effects most clearly on the fringes—along the coasts, up north and high in the mountains—but as the climate continues changing, the ripples will reach everywhere.
Few species are spared
On the Hawaiian Islands, mosquitoes are killing more songbirds. The dusky gray akikiki of Kauai and the chartreuse-yellow kiwikiu of Maui could vanish in two years, under assault from mosquitoes bearing avian malaria, according to a University of Hawaiʻi 2022 report. Previously, the birds could escape infection by roosting high in the cold mountains, where the pests couldn’t thrive, but climate change expanded the range of the mosquito and narrowed theirs.
Likewise, as more midge larvae survive over warm winters and breed better during drier summers, they bite more white-tailed deer, spreading often-fatal epizootic hemorrhagic disease. Especially in northern regions of the globe, climate change brings the threat of midges carrying blue tongue disease, a virus, to sheep and other animals. Tick-borne diseases like encephalitis and Lyme disease may become a greater threat to animals and perhaps humans.
"If you put all your eggs in one basket and then a pest comes a long, then you are more vulnerable to those risks," says Mehroad Ehsani, managing director of the food initiative in Africa for the Rockefeller Foundation. "Research is needed on resilient, climate smart, regenerative agriculture."
In the “thermal mismatch” theory of wildlife disease, cold-adapted species are at greater risk when their habitats warm, and warm-adapted species suffer when their habitats cool. Mammals can adjust their body temperature to adapt to some extent. Amphibians, fish and insects that cannot regulate body temperatures may be at greater risk. Many scientists see amphibians, especially, as canaries in the coalmine, signaling toxicity.
Early melting ice can foster disease. Climate models predict that the spring thaw will come ever-earlier in the lakes of the French Pyrenees, for instance, which traditionally stayed frozen for up to half the year. The tadpoles of the midwife toad live under the ice, where they are often infected with amphibian chytrid fungus. When a seven-year study tracked the virus in three species of amphibians in Pyrenees’s Lac Arlet, the research team found that, the earlier the spring thaw arrived, the more infection rates rose in common toads— , while remaining high among the midwife toads. But the team made another sad discovery: with early thaws, the common frog, which was thought to be free of the disease in Europe, also became infected with the fungus and died in large numbers.
Changing habitats affect animal behavior. Normally, spiny lobsters rely on chemical cues to avoid predators and sick lobsters. New conditions may be hampering their ability to “social distance”—which may help PaV1 spread, Behringer’s research suggests. Migration brings other risks. In April 2022, an international team led by scientists at Georgetown University announced the first comprehensive overview, published in the journal Nature, of how wild mammals under pressure from a changing climate may mingle with new populations and species—giving viruses a deadly opportunity to jump between hosts. Droughts, for example, will push animals to congregate at the few places where water remains.
Plants face threats also. At the timberline of the cold, windy, snowy mountains of the U.S. west, whitebark pine forests are facing a double threat, from white pine blister rust, a fungal disease, and multiplying pine beetles. “If we do nothing, we will lose the species,” says Robert Keane, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, based in Missoula, Montana. That would be a huge shift, he explains: “It’s a keystone species. There are over 110 animals that depend on it, many insects, and hundreds of plants.” In the past, beetle larvae would take two years to complete their lifecycle, and many died in frost. “With climate change, we're seeing more and more beetles survive, and sometimes the beetle can complete its lifecycle in one year,” he says.
Quintessential crops are under threat too
As some pathogens move north and new ones develop, they pose novel threats to the crops humans depend upon. This is already happening to wheat, coffee, bananas and maize.
Breeding against wheat stem rust, a fungus long linked to famine, was a key success in the mid-20th century Green Revolution, which brought higher yields around the world. In 2013, wheat stem rust reemerged in Germany after decades of absence. It ravaged both bread and durum wheat in Sicily in 2016 and has spread as far as England and Ireland. Wheat blast disease, caused by a different fungus, appeared in Bangladesh in 2016, and spread to India, the world’s second largest producer of wheat.
Insects, moths, worms, and coffee leaf rust—a fungus now found in all coffee-growing countries—threaten the livelihoods of millions of people who grow coffee, as well as everybody’s cup of joe. More heat, more intense rain, and higher humidity have allowed coffee leaf rust to cycle more rapidly. It has grown exponentially, overcoming the agricultural chemicals that once kept it under control.
To identify new diseases and fine-tune crops for resistance, scientists are increasingly relying on genomic tools.
Tar spot, a fungus native to Latin America that can cut corn production in half, has emerged in highland areas of Central Mexico and parts of the U.S.. Meanwhile, maize lethal necrosis disease has spread to multiple countries in Africa, notes Mehrdad Ehsani, Managing Director for the Food Initiative in Africa of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Cavendish banana, which most people eat today, was bred to be resistant to the fungus Panama 1. Now a new fungus, Panama 4, has emerged on every continent–including areas of Latin America that rely on the Cavendish for their income, reported a recent story in the Guardian. New threats are poised to emerge. Potato growers in the Andes Mountains have been shielded from disease because of colder weather at high altitude, but temperature fluxes and warming weather are expected to make this crop vulnerable to potato blight, found plant pathologist Erica Goss, at the Emerging Pathogens Institute.
Science seeks solutions
To protect food supplies in the era of climate change, scientists are calling for integrated global surveillance systems for crop disease outbreaks. “You can imagine that a new crop variety that is drought-tolerant could be susceptible to a pathogen that previous varieties had some resistance against,” Goss says. “Or a country suffers from a calamitous weather event, has to import seed from another country, and that seed is contaminated with a new pathogen or more virulent strain of an existing pathogen.” Researchers at the John Innes Center in Norwich and Aarhus University in Denmark have established ways to monitor wheat rust, for example.
Better data is essential, for both plants and animals. Historically, models of climate change predicted effects on plant pathogens based on mean temperatures, and scientists tracked plant responses to constant temperatures, explains Goss. “There is a need for more realistic tests of the effects of changing temperatures, particularly changes in daily high and low temperatures on pathogens,” she says.
To identify new diseases and fine-tune crops for resistance, scientists are increasingly relying on genomic tools. Goss suggests factoring the impact of climate change into those tools. Genomic efforts to select soft red winter wheat that is resistant to Fusarium head blight (FHB), a fungus that plagues farmers in the Southeastern U.S., have had early success. But temperature changes introduce a new factor.
A fundamental solution would be to bring back diversification in farming, says Ehsani. Thousands of plant species are edible, yet we rely on a handful. Wild relatives of domesticated crops are a store of possibly useful genes that may confer resistance to disease. The same is true for livestock. “If you put all your eggs in one basket and then a pest comes along, then you are more vulnerable to those risks. Research is needed on resilient, climate smart, regenerative agriculture,” Ehsani says.
Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, has called for data on wildlife health to be systematically collected and integrated with climate and other variables because more comprehensive data will result in better preventive action. “We have focused on detecting diseases,” he says, but a more holistic strategy would apply human public health concepts to assuring animal wellbeing. (For example, one study asked experts to draw a diagram of relationships of all the factors affecting the health of a particular group of caribou.) We must not take the health of plants and animals for granted, because their vulnerability inevitably affects us too, Sleeman says. “We need to improve the resilience of wildlife populations so they can withstand the impact of climate change.”
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.