Climate change and the fungus among-us

Photo Credit: Zarko Drincic via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Zarko Drincic via Compfight cc

I’m lucky, I don’t have allergies. Or I rarely have allergies. Or really the things that I’m allergic to, I rarely find myself around. It turns out I am allergic to some things. Like penicillin. But how often do I accidentally maim myself, get sepsis and require antibiotics? Rarely.

I’m also allergic to wheat. No not the whole gluten thing, even though, yes I live in the gluten-free mecca of Northern California. It’s actually wheat pollen that I’m allergic to. We are talking waterfalls-of-snot allergic. Fortunately I live in an urban environment and though people do try to dress it up with gardens overflowing with puyas and bananas, I’ve yet to run into a wheat field out here.

The last thing I’m allergic to? Mold. This allergy is worse than the others because rather than breaking out into a million little red pin-prick dots (penicillin) or losing 10 pounds in water-weight through my nose and eyes (wheat pollen), the mold gives me something called a kennel cough. You know the kennel cough, it’s the cough your dog gets after coming back from 2 weeks at the kennel. While you were happily jaunting around the Caribbean, your little pooch was stuck in a cell with another pooch or many pooches and returns with something that sounds like this “cough *pause* cough *pause* cough….” And so on. It’s light, it’s cheery, it’s annoying as hell and it never goes away.

The first two allergies (penicillin and wheat pollen), I can do a pretty good job of avoiding. But the last, mold, it turns out is nearly impossible to avoid now than ever before and this has everything to do with climate change.

Now this is probably what you are thinking, “Well, d’uh, climate change alters the climate, therefore precipitation (i.e. rain) and flooding risks, which molds tend to love, so like that must be what she is talking about. Case closed.” But that would make this blog the monograph of boring. Because, like d’uh.

Did it ever occur to you that molds might actually respond to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels? Of course not; they don’t photosynthesis like plants do, so how could CO2 ever have an effect?

Aha, but it does. In fact, increases in carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution have increased the allergenicity (or the allergic-ness, as non-nerds would call it) of a specific mold: Aspergillus fumigatus.

This mold is particularly nasty because:

1. Its spores are everywhere all the time, you are probably inhaling 100 spores right now with each breath as you read this (for the love of god, don’t gasp!!) and

2. It’s the sucker that is responsible for fungal diseases that take down folks who are immunosuppressed. Also, I’m told that if you have asthma, this mold sucks.

So, like, not our favorite fungi.

But not all is lost in the future, because it turns out that we are at the peak for the allergenicity, and as CO2 continues to go up over the next 30 years and then 50 years and then 100 years (because let’s face it, you just are never going to walk anywhere, are you??) the allergenicity (remember, allergic-ness) actually goes down. So it looks like we’ve hit a peak right now that may go down with more carbon dioxide.

The direct effect of CO2 on this mold isn’t the whole story; in fact it’s only the first part. As you know from reading my blog, changes in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have all sorts of impacts on plant communities and internal chemistry of plants. One of the things it can do is increase the proportion of carbon in the plant, so when the plant dies there is a more carbon-rich substrate for the decomposers (i.e. molds) to enjoy.

Turns out that our friendly fungus, Aspergillus fumigatus, is once again there to enjoy this carbon-rich substrate, and boy does it love it. Yes, the carbon-rich substrate makes the mold more allergenic again. The same goes when a little extra nitrogen is added to the substrate. (How would this ever happen in the real world? I don’t know, do you fertilize your garden?)

So, we appear to be at a bit of a peak right now of allergenicity with this one fungus, and it may be the same for others. This of course is not unique to allergens, as we know how increases in CO2 impact ragweed and other itchy, sneezy things that make you go “achoo” in the night.

I’m not too worried about it though, as I said in last week’s post, I live in the mecca of alternative health therapies – there must be something for all this darn mold…maybe a bleach tonic?

Further Reading:
Changes in atmospheric CO2 influence the allergenicity of Aspergillus fumigatus

Climate change and depression: come on get happy!

Photo Credit: ep_jhu via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: ep_jhu via Compfight cc

I have a problem. Well, several problems. According to the Internet, anyway.
Whenever I log on to Facebook, turn on Pandora or try to read the Washington Post online, I’m inundated with advertisements for overweight, depressed and self-injurious people. I’m not kidding; reading an article on climate change got me an ad for “big girl” clothing. Listening to alt-country garnered me links to programs for bulimics and depressives. Facebook desperately wants me to try a drink that allows you to lose weight as you drink it…amazing! If I wasn’t a scientist.

So what could be leading the Internet to think that I’m so sad and lonely? Is it my constant reading of articles on environmental hazards? My obsession with advice columns? My dire love of cheese? Well…I suppose a combination of those things could lead to a self-injurious life.

What the Internet doesn’t realize is that I live in the self-help center of the Universe. The Bay Area, particularly Berkeley, is the place where solutions to all of your ailments can be found.

Feeling like your qi is uncentered? There’s a yoga move for that… and about 10 yoga studios within a mile of my house for all your yoga needs – hot, cold, breathe-focused, butt-focused, we’ve got it in spades.

Feeling bloated or overweight? There are teas and fasts and juices and someone to advise you on just about every possible diet (paleo-, whole-grain, vegan, grapefruit) within a quarter mile of any given intersection.

Feeling like you’ve reached adulthood without full self-actualization? Well, that’s too easy. There’s a cult on my street corner ready to cleanse your house and give you internal solace at the drop of a God’s eye. Give me your home address and I’ll send them over right away.

The cleansing, though, isn’t really necessary for me. My house used to be a pagan temple. It has been cleansed within an inch of its life.

But if you’re someone who loves these types of treatments, particularly the herbal ones, then you’re in a bit of trouble with climate change. Why is that? Well, I’ve been yammering quite a bit lately about the impact of climate change on the internal chemistry of plants – how secondary metabolites (those used, for example, for defense instead of growth and reproduction) can change in response to the environment(1).

Which herbs am I talking about? Well, you already know about the really popular, not-so-legal ones like marijuana, cocaine and morphine. But other less illicit drugs follow suit in much the same way.

Take St. John’s wort, for example. You know, the one your herbalist aunt recommended after that last terrible break-up, the one that’s super popular for treating melancholy, is very sensitive to both changes in carbon dioxide and temperature stress. Both of these environmental factors (the temperature and the CO2) increase the compounds attributed to mellowing you out, you anxious depressive you (2 & 3).

You might think this is great; it’s going to get super tropical, toasty warm and we’ll be incredibly happy about it with all that St. John’s wort that we’ll be slurping down…do you slurp herbs? I have no idea. Maybe you masticate them.

Unfortunately, secondary metabolites are only part of the story… which is why they are called “secondary”, obviously. Under really hot, hot temperatures, yeah there was more hypericin (a chemical considered responsible for the anti-depressant quality of the plant) in the leaves, but the plant suffered miserably. We’re talking smaller plants which, after 15 days of the really hot treatment (over 95F), had yellowed leaves with lower rates of photosynthesis (3). So yeah, more of the chemical you love, you fiend, but sad and sickly plants. Are you really so selfish?

So all this toasty-broiling hot weather isn’t all that great for St. John’s Wort, it seems, even if it may provide plants with a little more of that happy chemical you love.

Personally, I don’t really feel the need for any sort of herbal infusion in my life, especially with so many alternative medicines available to me just as I walk out my door. Spending all my days eating wheels of cheese and reading about climate change hasn’t really turned me into the depressive that the Internet thinks I should be. Now, would someone please tell Facebook?

Further Reading:

1. Plant molecular stress responses face climate change
2. Temperature stress can alter the photosynthetic efficiency and secondary metabolite concentrations in St. John’s wort
3. Production of St. John’s wort plants under controlled environment for maximizing biomass and secondary metabolites

Hot Smack: climate change and heroin

Photo Credit: FotoRita [Allstar maniac] via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: FotoRita [Allstar maniac] via Compfight cc
Normally, each week I start my blog with an amusing anecdote seemingly unrelated to anything scientific in order to lure you in to the extraordinary world of climate change science. I wrote about aliens in order to talk about invasive species, I wrote about Valley girls in order to talk about Bengal tigers and sea level rise, and who can forget my discussion of three-ways to address tri-trophic interactions. So naturally this week when writing about climate change and heroin, I thought for sure I would start with an amusing anecdote. There had to be something funny about heroin, right?

So I started thinking about it. I could write about the quality time spent in DARE as a 5th grader learning how marijuana was a gate-way drug to mushrooms, pills, cocaine and eventually death (thanks Nancy for that winning accuracy). But that’s not really that funny. Actually it was a depressing waste of time.

I could write about the drug addicts I’ve seen shooting up on the median strip in the road on my way to work, but there really is nothing funny about that either. It’s actually kind of sad.

The truth is drugs, dangerous drugs like heroin, just aren’t really that funny. And if you’ve ever known anyone who has battled addiction, then you’d probably find nothing funny about them either.

(Except for mushrooms of course, people on mushrooms are hilarious.)

So ok most drugs are not funny, I totally get that. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting. Actually, they are *really* interesting. Mostly, though, for reasons that have nothing to do with us.

You see most of the components in plants that get people high are these chemical compounds called secondary metabolites. You’ve heard me talk about them before; it’s the chemicals that make food spicy, coffee peppy and tobacco lovely. Though people have taken advantage of these compounds to our benefit and bred the crap out of the plants to increase the compound concentrations, they aren’t necessarily there for us. Secondary compounds are typically used by plants to ward off herbivores (you know, like bugs who like to munch on their leaves).

These compounds can do all sorts of messed up things to bugs, but great things for us. For example, tannins, which are a favored component in high quality wine, actually cause lesions in grasshoppers’ stomachs (1).

With climate change though, many of these compound concentrations will change, and this is true for the heroin-producing poppy plants as well.

You see, the chemical predecessor necessary for manufacturing heroin, morphine, increases in poppy plants when carbon dioxide goes up. In fact, since atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from 300 ppm to 400 ppm over the past 100 years, morphine levels in poppy plants have followed suit. This trend will continue into the next century, as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. Not only that, the higher carbon dioxide makes for larger plants with more and larger capsules (poppy straws) where the morphine is extracted from. So, like big-ass, potent poppy plants (2) with loads of morphine. Sounds as messed up as it is.

Ok, but this is just morphine. How will this increased amount of morphine in each plant change heroin? Well, I can’t really say.

You see, heroin is heavily manufactured from the morphine derived from poppy plants, and for some reason the DEA is not really big on having the information on how to create heroin publically available online. So it is possible, that the chemistry is actually well managed and tested throughout the chemical process, ensuring that even if a higher concentration of morphine is going in, the same strength of heroin is coming out. But I honestly have no idea how to make heroin, or how picky heroin manufacturers are about the consistency of their product, so it is possible that they are very cognizant of this change. Or maybe not.

So as you can see, even if the story is rather depressing, the science is actually really interesting, and there are many more questions out there to answer. Maybe by the time the next study comes out I’ll have something more humorous to say about it…

Ha? Ha?

Further Reading:
1. Tannins in plant–herbivore interactions
2. Recent and projected increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the potential impacts on growth and alkaloid production in wild poppy (Papaver setigerum DC.)

Climate change and aliens: the truth is out there

Photo Credit: Chriss Pagani via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Chriss Pagani via Compfight cc

Working in science education, I get exposed to all sorts of myths and conspiracies regarding modern science. Mermaids are real, because we just don’t know that they’re not (thanks Animal Planet); AIDS is simply the result of malnutrition (phew, that makes things waaay easier); and climate change is caused by new order aliens who are altering the atmosphere to meet their reptilian needs (I love this one).

This last one is a personal favorite, not only because like, wow, but also because there actually is a closer connection between aliens and climate change than you might think. Ok, not those probey, X-Files aliens, but alien species aka invasive species that are here on earth.

So you have probably heard of invasive species before. They are also sometimes called exotic species, or non-native species. They are typically things like kudzu or zebra mussels that move into a new region and completely take off. They tend to be good dispersers (their pollen, seed, babies etc. go everywhere), are tolerant around environmental extremes or changes, and often have the advantage of growing quickly (1,2). Some of them live long and prosper, while others live hard, die young and leave a legacy of minions to take their place. Either way, they create a bit of a mess for whatever ecosystem they move into.

Invasive species end up in new areas through a variety of means. Sometimes they follow roads and rivers to new locations like in the case of Ragweed’s spread throughout Quebec (achoo!) (3), and sometimes they are escapees from homes, like in the case of exotic fish species released from aquariums (4) — Free Nemo!

It turns out that though, that aquatic systems are particularly sensitive to invasive species under climate change scenarios, as aquatic animals can be sensitive to changes in water temperature and acidity levels. Who wants to swim in hot acid anyway?

In aquatic systems, both native and non-native animal species are impacted by these changes to acidity and temperature, but the non-native species have a much stronger response overall. This means that if the conditions got better for them, the non-natives took off, but if it got worse the non-natives suffered more (5). This makes for a tricky situation for those native species, as not only do they have to deal with a changing environment, but also there are these jerk invaders coming in that might completely take over if conditions become a little more comfortable for them. At the same time though, if the environment becomes a little more inhospitable, the natives will be the ones to prosper.

This of course is a grand generalization, because there are so many components that can make invasive species succeed (growth rate, dispersal ability, reproduction time) and climate change can impact systems in so many different ways (temperature, acidity levels, even salinity). So there are still plenty of research questions to be answered in this field.

Not the worry though. As you are tucked peacefully in your bed at night scientists are working hard analyzing data, chasing down lion fish and developing models to better understand how these systems will respond to climate change. The truth is out there, and scientists are going to find it.

Further Reading
1. Rapid evolution in introduced species, ‘invasive traits’ and recipient communities: challenges for predicting invasive potential.
2. Do invasive species show higher phenotypic plasticity than native species and, if so, is it adaptive? A meta-analysis.
3. How did common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia L.) spread in Quebec? A historical analysis using herbarium records.
4. Beyond ballast water: aquarium and ornamental trades as sources of invasive species in aquatic ecosystems.
5. Poised to prosper? A cross-system comparison of climate change effects on native and non-native species performance.

The Roar of Climate Change: sea level rise and…tigers?

Photo Credit: Claudio Gennari ..."Cogli l'attimo ferma il tempo" via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Claudio Gennari …”Cogli l’attimo ferma il tempo” via Compfight cc

Working at the Paleontology museum, I am often inundated with children; screaming, excited, growling (at the T-Rex) children who are thrilled at the very thought of the giant chickens we call dinosaurs. Chasing after them are exhausted smart-phone wielding parents who intermittently demand that their child either touch nothing or pose for a picture.

This game of “don’t touch/pose” reminds me of my own childhood, racing through museums wanting to destroy everything in my path. Of course things were different back then; I was a child of the 80’s. We weren’t afraid of vaccines, self-actualization and consuming bath salts back then – no we had real fears: satanic cults, repressed memories and crack babies.

We were all material girls living in a material world (even the boys) and we spoke with authority when we had something to say about it. Yes, the language of the 80’s was not all Gordon Gecko as some people like to pretend, but rather the language of the valley girl. The 80’s were the decade when the great and terrifying valley girl roamed the earth.

How did the valley girl talk? Well, she talked like, sort of, like, like, like this, you know? If she thought you were tubular, she’d tell you so, but mostly she’d be, like, killer hard on you, or something. And also mostly, she thought you were, like, a total dumbass, using the term “d’uh”, or in under more extreme circumstances, “doy-hickey” if you really said something completely oblivious.

Though I’ve certainly grown out of the crimped hair, swatch-wearing, aerobicizing 80’s girl, I still carry a little of that in my heart. In moments of deep-contemplation of really unusual scientific findings, I have been known to utter “whooooa, tubular” and in response to a talk on geothermal vents, I once uttered under my breath “that is totally radical”. But honestly more often than not when reading about climate change, I revert back the most, because I am almost always saying “d’uh”.

When do I say “d’uh”? Well, when people talk about really obvious effects of climate change on biological systems.

What is an obvious effect? Well, what about melting ice sheets impacting polar bears? D’uh. How about research into changing migration patterns and phenological events in response to a warming temperatures? Double d’uh. And when people talk about rising sea levels impacting shoreline animals or island nations (1)….well, gag me with a spoon, of course there will be an impact. We’ve just graduated from “d’uh” to “doy hickey”.

But before we dismiss all sea-level rise impacts on shoreline animals as obvious research, I think we need to expand our horizons a little bit to look at who is relying on the shoreline for their happy home.

Ok, so who is living at the shoreline…well people, sure; crabs, ok; grasses, yeah; mussels, oysters, clams, sea stars, snails, barnacles, limpets, anemones, tunicates: yeah, yeah, yeah….shrimp, turtles, birds, tigers…..wait a minute, tigers?

Yeah, tigers. Wicked.

You see, in eastern India/western Bangladesh, there are these mangrove preserves where tigers run free. In fact, this is the only tiger popular known to be adapted to mangrove forests. That’s not an easy feat, mangroves are forests that are inundated with ocean water….tigers are cats….this was not a match made in heaven. But the tigers adapted, and they seem to be living quite nicely there. For now. But just under one foot sea level rise in the next 60 or so years could completely displace them, at least on the Bangladeshi side, leaving 20 breeders there (2).

You may not be a population biologist, but I bet you could guess that 20 is a pretty small number. Most women I know have had at least that many first dates. Could you imagine if those 20 were your only option? Yikes.

So sea level rise might mean bad news for not only the expected animals (grasses, mussels, plovers, anemones and so on) but also the unexpected ones (lions and tigers and bears, oh my! – at least the tigers and bears, anyway).

In the meantime I’ll be rooting for the noble mangrove-living tiger. It would be way sad if they went the way of the valley girl. Some might even say, that it would be “totally bogus”. Dude.

Further Reading:
(1) Vulnerability of terrestrial island vertebrates to projected sea-level rise
(2) Sea level rise and tigers: predicted impacts to Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangroves

Climate change and threesomes: it just gets more complex

Photo Credit: gbohne via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: gbohne via Compfight cc

Growing up in New England you become very comfortable being surrounded by untraditional families and relationships. Brady-bunch-style blended families, with step-s half-s and semi-s are a dime a dozen. I’ve known more than one person who has accidentally dated a double-step-brother (step-parents step-child from previous marriage) and had to ask….is that legal? Turns out it is….at least in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile the younger set is happily redefining what a relationship means. This runs the gamut from: “We’ve been seeing each other for 5 weeks, can I call you my girlfriend?” to “We’ve been seeing each other for 5 minutes, let’s get married!” Relationships also come in all shapes and sizes, from people coupling up in a traditional two, to those who include three, four and even more in their relationship status.

I’ve always been impressed with those who were able to manage these multi-person relationships. I have trouble attending to one other person, I can’t imagine having to remember the birthdays of 2 or 3 others. And then there would be all of their families, and significant others and suddenly I would be completely lost in a web of people. Each time you add a person, you add a layer of complexity. Complexity is difficult for people like me.

It turns out though, that nature is very good with complexity, and the more complexity you add on, rather than making things too difficult to follow, it makes them more interesting to study. This is no more clear than with trophic interactions.

What is a trophic interaction? Well you see, when you are out in nature you tend to be either eating or being eaten. For example a carnivorous lady bug eats an aphid that eats a pepper plant. Yes, if you are the size of a pin head, lady bugs are terrifying, insatiable carnivorous monsters. Be glad you’re not so small.

The interaction between these munchers and munchees are called trophic interactions, and where you are on this food chain is your trophic level. The fact that I mentioned three organisms (lady bug, aphid, plant) means that it was a tri-trophic interaction. Tri, means three. Like tricycle, d’uh.

These kinds of questions get sort of cool when you ask what happens if there is a massive lady bug boom and all the aphids get eaten, do the plants do really well that year? Or maybe there is an aphid boom and all the lady bugs couldn’t possibly eat them all, do the plants suffer? What if all the plants die from a drought, does the system collapse?

And then what happens when you throw another variable into the mix, as will happen with climate change. Well actually with climate change there will be a zillion variables, like increased CO2 and warming temperature and water availability. But one thing we tend not to talk about, which is predicted with climate change, are heat waves. More heat waves.

So what happens if I expose that tri-trophic interaction I mentioned before (evil lady bugs, plump and delicious aphids and fresh, tasty pepper plants) to extreme heat waves. What would you predict? Would the plants just die from the heat wave, leaving the aphids and therefore lady bugs to suffer? Would the aphids get heat stroke, negatively impacting the lady bugs, but helping the plants survive? Would they all get sun tan lotion out and lie out on beach blankets?

These are all great research questions (except maybe the last one), but actually, this threesome, is a little more complex. You see, when there are just aphids and plants, a really simple system, the system can be heavily impacted by a large event like a heat wave. It gets hot, the aphids die, the plant cheers with relief…if it can survive the heat itself. But typically ecosystems are never so simple. More commonly there is an herb (plant), an herbivore (animal that eats the plant) and also, a predator (that eats the herbivore).

Think about it: spiders, tigers, wolves; these are all predators that feed on herbivores in different ecosystems. If you took out the predator, say like we did with the wolf, what do you think will happen to the herbivore, in this example the deer population? Well the deer just start marching around thinking they own the place, eating your flowers, crapping on your lawn….Jerks. Then if there is a major disruptive event, like a heat wave, the impact on the large, uncontrolled deer population is enormous. But if there was already a predator keeping their numbers within reason (whatever that is), then when an extreme event happens the impact is less severe.

The same is true for our predatory lady bugs; take them out of the system and the aphids go wild, so when an extreme heat event happens there is a minor aphid apocalypse. Leave the top predator in and a major heat event has a lesser impact. A little counter-intuitive, I know.

Now we know that most systems are even more complex than this simple tri-trophic interaction with plants being eaten by bugs that get eaten by other bugs that get eaten by spiders that are consumed by birds that are eaten by house cats that are eaten by coyotes that are eaten by your weird neighbor….making the web even more complex. But it’s this complexity that may be protecting the system from extreme events associated with climate change.

So, complexity in some relationships can actually be a good thing, protecting a system from major upheaval and weakening the impact of large disruptive events. Perhaps there is a lesson I should consider for my own life – maybe more complexity in my relationships could help me buffer against great upheaval as well. I’m willing to give it a try if nature predicts it will be better for me….only…who is going to tell my husband? Will you?

Further Reading
Effects of simulated heat waves on an experimental plant–herbivore–predator food chain

Minda Berbeco is the programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education and a visiting scholar at the UC Museum of Paleontology. She would like to apologize if her post this week is a little incoherent, she is up at the AGU Chapman conference in the Rockies and there is just not a lot of oxygen up here. You can follow all the excitement of the conference on Twitter with #climatechapman

The end is nigh, 2.5 billion years ago

Through my work in the sciences, I’ve found myself in some pretty cool places. Researching urban trees in Cuba (a clipboard in one hand, a cigar in the other), machete-ing my way through a tropical rainforest while being hunted by wild pigs, sipping lattes for hours and hours and hours and hours while writing all of that work up (a caffeine drip really would have been more helpful). But nowhere was as cool and interesting as my most recent position at a paleontology museum here in California, because let’s be serious, dinosaurs rule.

In case you are wondering, yes it’s just about as awesome as you’d think it would be. There are millions of fossils there. Warehouses. Multiple warehouses of bones. Cabinets, shelves and boxes filled with toes, tibias, skulls, teeth.

You need a wolf jaw from the La Brea tar pits? We’ve got those.

Mammoth skulls? Of course. Mastodon? Well, you can’t have a mammoth without a mastodon, it’s like having an incomplete set.

T-Rex teeth? D’uh. Diplodocus pelvis? Archaeopteryx? Pterodactyls? Sure!

And of course petrified wood and leaves and shells and racks and racks and racks of microfossils plated on slides.

To say the least, I’m a tiny bit impressed.

Sitting in the museum with overflowing boxes of fossils you have to be amazed at the abundance of life, and then you have to ask where it’s all come from and where is it going?

Most of all, though, you have to stop and think, where and when did it all start? What was the beginning and what came before? Before the toes and the hips and the bones, before the leaves and the bark, before even those tiny little shells and microfossils.

Before all of them, everything that is warehoused in the museum dating back millions of years….before all that, what was there? There was nothing.

Well, that’s a lie. There was something, there was lot’s, I suppose. It just wasn’t really nearly as impressive.

You see over 2.7 billion years ago the earth was way different (1). I mean the atmosphere was different. And I’m not talking LA on a smoggy day different. I mean there was no oxygen in the air. So everything that was living on earth couldn’t be oxygen-lovers like us. No instead anaerobes ruled (those are organisms that live without oxygen) living in thick microbial mats.

These microbes were living the good life. They were slow to grow, slow to divide, slow to do everything, because without oxygen, organisms are actually not incredibly efficient. But what does it matter, living too slow a life? Who’s gonna care?

But then cyanobacteria arrived on the scene, which were the first oxygen-making bacteria.

The other bacteria were like, “whoa, way weird”, but mostly it was ok because the oxygen they produced got sequestered through chemical reactions and nothing really changed too much for the anaerobic microbes (2). Life was still good. As good as it can be for a methane farter.

But then something happened – and it’s not really known what – and oxygen started accumulating in the atmosphere. The bummer thing is that oxygen is actually way toxic for you if you are an anaerobic bacterium. So essentially cyanobacteria became these horrible polluters, releasing toxic oxygen into the atmosphere, and antagonizing the anaerobic bacteria (3).

Can you imagine the fallout? Anaerobic bacteria running through the streets screaming, “The end is near! The end is near!” That is if there were streets, which there weren’t, and bacteria could run and scream, which they can’t. So, this is really a metaphorical running and screaming through the streets.

And then things got even worse. I mean worse for people like me who would have loved that toasty pre-photosynthesis, methane-rich environment (aside from the not being able to breathe bit). As oxygen rose in the atmosphere, methane went down and since methane is a greenhouse gas which helps warm the earth, the earth got way cool. I mean really cold. This is what people call “snowball earth”, so you can guess how cold I’m talking. And it lasted forever….until it ended, eventually.

So what was the fallout of the great oxidation event? Well, life. I mean life as we know it. It took a while, a couple billion years, and earth was turned into a giant snowball, but eventually oxygen rose to near-modern levels, and we start to see oxygen loving organisms developing in the seas (1).

From there came toes, and noses, and hips and wings and all the things that we know and love and stock into museums to hide away and study. Along came life. You see, it turns out that all that life on earth that we know and love didn’t start at the beginning as we like to believe. It started, with the end. The end of days.

Further Reading:
(1) The story of O2
(2) The rise of atmospheric oxygen
(3) The continuing puzzle of the great oxidation event

Makin’ Babies on the Beach

Being a nomadic academic, I’ve found social media sites to be incredibly useful for keeping up with all the folks who would have been lost to migration, following the global tidal flows of scientific funding. Friends who’ve disappeared into the Australian outback or the corn fields of Indiana, remain close in my heart and in my mind, as their constant updates keep me abreast of all their life’s trajectories. Through Facebook, I’ve helped them crowdsource answers to life’s bigger questions: should I order the eggs benedict or the Belgian waffles? Where is the best place to live in DC? Was that a poisonous snake that just bit me?

Intermixed with these deep scientific engagements, are the regular going-ons of people’s lives: dating, marriages, divorces, marriages, divorces and marriages again, are all documented in great detail. I follow the wave of news, like and comment as appropriate and am always fascinated by where everyone landed. It has always been a positive experience. That is, until people started having children…then things went from very sweet to very gross.

First, there were the clever confessions (“Ruby is going to have a cousin!”), the indistinguishable ultrasounds, the cute baby bumps. Adorable. Then came the strangely awkward posts from the delivery room, the sweaty slightly mangled expressions of the new parents, the confused babies with misshapen heads. All of this seemed appropriate, if not a little too share-y.

Appropriate that is, until we got to the poop. Yes, there is nothing new parents want to share more with everyone in the world then all about their little lamb’s excretions. And it’s not limited to poop mind you. There is vomit. Urine. Mucus. Really anything that can be projected from their lovely little squirts will turn up on my Facebook newsfeed.

It was highly educational. I learned about consistency. I learned about regularity. I learned about colors and shapes. I learned about prunes over apples. Yes, as soon as you become a parent, the most exciting thing in your life changes from playing games of hide the salami to trying to desperately keep the salami from spraying out of your small child’s digestive tract while at Bloomingdales fine whites sale. Exciting? No doubt! Enticing? Hardly.

So it seems that my friends have become fecund in their old age….and are willing to brag about all the ins and outs of what that means (though mostly it really is just the “outs”). I shouldn’t complain, my friends are quite lucky. Not all animals will be having the same reproductive success, and in fact, under climate change some animals may be in need of a little love intervention….

Take the mellow sea urchin for example. These spiny little creatures are in for some trouble under ocean acidification. As a reminder, ocean acidification is a pH change of the ocean caused by the increase of carbon dioxide in ocean water (this video explains it well). I’ve talked about ocean acidification several times before. How it could drive clown fish into the arms of predators (and their parents, ew), how it will ruin hermit crabs ability to find an ideal home (in this market? Unfair!)….but I haven’t talked about how it will ruin the sex lives of sea critters. And that is a sincere possibility.

What do I mean? Well, the sperm of sea urchins hangs out in an immobilized state inside the acidic environment of the testis, waiting to be released (yes sea urchins have testis, get over it. They also have sex, don’t freak out.). It turns out that the release of the sperm from the acidic environment into the less acidic sea water “wakes up” the sperm and gets them swimming. So you can see the problem with more acidic sea water, those sperm just won’t wake up. So less motile sperm could lead to less reproduction and then, you know, no adorable little sea urchins to Facebook about (1).

So are things doomed for the noble little sea urchin? Maybe not.

Why? Selection!!!

What do I mean? Well it seems that though many sea urchins experience reduced sperm motility in more acidic ocean waters, some are minimally affected. As in, there is variation between individuals (2). Therefore the individual with sperm that remains motile under the more acidic conditions will get to make more of the babies. In theory anyway.

So, maybe a little bit of evolution could come in and save the day for sea urchins. Or maybe not while there seems to be some sperm that can manage in more acidic environment, we know less about the larvae and developmental stages of sea urchins. So one question down, about 500 more to go….

In the meantime, we can hold out hope for those little urchins. Maybe we should try to figure out if this species will have the ability to adapt and survive. Maybe we should study the impacts of ocean acidification on the different life stages of these critters. Or maybe we should just encourage them to talk about it on Facebook. Why not? It seems like when it comes to reproductive success, you can never overshare.

Further Reading:
(1) Near-future levels of ocean acidification reduce fertilization success in a sea urchin
(2) Individual Variability in Reproductive Success Determines Winners and Losers under Ocean Acidification: A Case Study with Sea Urchins

Judge, jury and wine executioner…I mean enthusiast.

I received a desperate e-mail earlier this week — why was I no longer blogging? Had I fallen in a ditch? Turned to climate change denial? Dropped out of science writing and joined a convent?

No, nothing so dramatic. I just had jury duty. Actually, I still have jury duty. For weeks. And there is nothing that drains all of your creative juices as much as being sequestered into a stuffy courtroom listening to a case on…well, I can’t say what the case is on. I’m not allowed to talk about the case or where it is or who is involved or anything interesting. But I can tell you that jury duty can often involve a lot of waiting while lawyers and judges hash out information that the jury is not allowed to hear.

This leaves you, the juror, with a lot of extra time on your hands. You could start that new novel you’ve been planning, try to do some work, plan world domination. But the bailiff might return at any moment, in five minutes, in ten minutes, or three hours. You just don’t know. So what do you do for hours on end of continuously interrupted waiting? Puzzles! Large puzzles. 1,000 piece puzzles of things like clowns or flowers or puppies.

In my case it was a puzzle of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house. So I had a lot of time to stare of TJ’s lovely estate — its brick facade, the gardens, the lush green yards. And as I pieced together the small windows on the second story of his manor, I contemplated not the house itself, but his vineyards or really the lack thereof.

There is much lore about good old Thomas Jefferson, but my favorite is his many failed attempts to grow wine grapes in the new world. As the story goes, he was supposedly never able to grow European stocks of wine grapes because they were susceptible to Phylloxera, a sapsucking insect that infiltrates the roots of grapevines in the US. American grapes are resistant to Phylloxera having had to contend with them for many years, but this was a new ailment to the alien European vines and they severely suffered.

You are probably thinking that this is all a little ridiculous; if we had American grape varieties, why bring over European varieties at all? Why not make wine from those well-adapted American grapes? What were early Americans, total snobs or something?

It turns out that American grapes are just fine for eating, but they make a foxy wine – and I don’t mean this kind, I mean a foxy flavor. What is a foxy flavor? I have no idea, but apparently it’s a thing with wines, and American grapes make wines that are much like American women…foxy as hell!

Finally grape growers in America figured out that you could just graft the European vines onto American rootstock and avoid the Phylloxera trap all together. In fact, American fruit growers in general have done a pretty valiant job of identifying pests and using all sorts of tools to manage these little critters. From grafting to planting cover crops to conventional pesticide-use to integrated-pest-management to organics to GMOs to crop rotation; there isn’t anything farmers won’t try to manage the many pests that can come in and mangle their crops.

Independent of your opinion on how they do it, they have certainly done an amazing job of keeping those pests at bay given the sheer amount of produce available to us in grocery stores across the US. All of this could be greatly disrupted though by climate change as the temperature heats up (1), but probably not necessarily in the way that you think.

When most of us think about warmer temperature, we think about summer heat and wildfires and droughts. Sometimes we also talk about snow and lack thereof, or sometimes an overabundance of snow, because that is related as well. But we don’t really talk about winter weather in terms of its usefulness in killing insects, and keeping their populations down.

Winter, though, really icy, terribly bitter cold winters, are an important part of insect control, and there is nothing some insects love more than a nice, cozy unseasonably warm winter that they can just snooze right through. One excellent example for wine-grapes is the bitterly-hated glassy winged-sharpshooter (I didn’t make that name up, I promise). The sharpshooter is a vector that carries this gnarly bacteria to the vines resulting in something called Pierce’s disease(2).

Not only will the sharp-shooter enjoy a warmer winter, because hey, who doesn’t love a warm and mild winter? But, as temperature increases, the ability to pass on the disease from the sharpshooter goes up (3). So higher temperature means more disease transmission. Bad news for the vines, great news for the pathogen.

Can you imagine if warmer weather meant higher disease transmission for people? Well…sometimes it does…on Spring break, I guess….but that’s sort of different….

So as the climate continues to change, there will be a whole new host of challenges that growers will have to contend with. Just as farmers had started to figure out all the intricacies of protecting their crops from insects, people had to go and make things climatically interesting, and a little extra challenging for the farmers. Who knows, maybe in 100 years the terrain that farmers are dealing with will be as foreign to them due to climate change as the Phylloxera-infested land that Thomas Jefferson had to deal with.

Will we be as crafty then as we’ve been since Jefferson planted his first vineyard at Monticello? Maybe it will be for someone 100 years from now to contemplate as they sit in a court house waiting to be called in for jury duty. When it comes to climate change though, time, not people, will be the judge.

Further Reading

(1) A review of the potential climate change impacton insect populations – general and agricultural aspects
(2) Climate change associated effects on grape and wine quality and production
(3) Temperature mediates vector transmission efficiency: inoculum supply and plant infection dynamics

Climate Change Surprise!

When I was growing up, I hated April fool’s day. I was the youngest of three, which meant that every joke would be at my expense and I was never quite old enough to exact adequate revenge. Every year I ended up covered in shaving cream, doused with water and sitting on whoopee cushions. Hot pepper gum and hand-buzzers were made for people like me. At the time, my brain was not developed enough to come up with a clever prank, so I swore that one day when my brothers least expected it, I would exact my revenge. Some day.

Years passed. Decades even. We became adults, moved on, got jobs, met for drinks. The little things of childhood seemed petty. When I turned 30, I knew that the time had come. I enlisted my brothers’ girlfriends as allies (clarification: two brothers, one girlfriend each). In the early morning on April 1st they snuck out of their rooms and coated all the door handles in the house with shaving cream. You may not think this was a significant enough revenge, but then you probably have never gotten a hand-full of shaving cream on a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Trust me, at 2am there is nothing you want less. The transition is quick, from confusion to realization to rage.

The next morning I gleefully received several angry texts – revenge 25 years later is as sweet as it sounds. As you can guess, in my old age, I have developed a liking for surprises. And it’s this love of surprises that allows me to enjoy learning about climate change so much—climate change is full of surprises.

Take oceans—I’ve talked about the effect of climate change on oceans….the effect of acidification on sea animal’s senses, and their sex life… the effect of warming on kelp… increased carbon dioxide on sea anemones… altered pH on shelled organisms….what else could I possibly write about?? There can’t possibly be anything else.

Well, there’s one more thing….and that’s oxygen.

Surprised?

It turns out that ocean water holds less oxygen when it’s warmer. And though sea animals are able to breathe underwater, they are actually breathing the oxygen in the water. In addition, for some ocean ectotherms (animals whose body temperature changes with the environment), increasing the temperature increases their metabolism, requiring even more oxygen. So as less oxygen is available in the water, their need for it grows greater.

This is predicted to be a particular issue for the Antarctic clam, which is a popular model organism. When I say model organism, I don’t mean Tyra Banks or Kate Moss, I mean a model that is used to make connections and observations for other similar organisms (Tyra and Kate don’t really qualify here). Mice are a model organism, and so are fruit flies. They are easy to control, their life span and characteristics are well-understood, and they reproduce like it’s going out of style. They are a “model” in more way than one. So though I’m speaking of the Antarctic clam, the findings are not limited to this lowly clam, it is a model for other similar animals that like to live at the bottom of the ocean, feed larger more ferocious animals and slurp on sea scum.

So what is going to happen to these bottom dwellers? It turns out that older, larger clams are negatively impacted by lower oxygen levels in the water. Part of this has to do with older clams being more sedentary (yes, even older clams mellow with age), and part is due to other factors like the size of the gill surface for oxygen extraction (older animals have proportionally less). If you have less surface area for extracting oxygen, and there is less oxygen in the water…well, let’s just say it’s bad news, clam (1).

But so what? That could be a good thing, right? More room for the small, nubile clams. Out with the old, in with the new! But in this species the older, larger, lazy clams are the reproducing clams, so you are less likely to get the young and new without the old and large. Troubling for the clams. Troubling for us who care about ocean ecosystems.

So, climate change is more like a vengeful little sister than you had ever imagined. Just when you thought you knew everything about it, it turns out it is full of surprises.

Further Reading:
(1) Hypoxia impacts large adults first: consequences in a warming world.


Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is the Policy & Programs Director at the National Center for Science Education. She was considering playing a prank on her coworkers this year for April fool’s day by telling them she had been offered a job by the Heartland Institute, but then realized it just wouldn’t be that funny.