Ye Older Bio Warefare: The effects of climate change on hallucinogens (Part 2)

Last week I talked about the effect of climate change on hallucinogens in the Solanacea family and their link to American colonial history. In the post, I commented on how living in New England, American colonial history is everywhere you walk, sit and breathe, and for some living in the area, it can end up rather old hat.

For those living on the East Coast, who may have tired of colonial American history (how many times can you fight traffic to see where the Pilgrims landed?) there is an even more enticing history to engage yourself with: the Renaissance. Now one might imagine that a novice historian might want to make a trip to Italy to surround themselves in Renaissance history –visit the estates, see the fine works, take up playing the lute. But why waste the money when there is a far better way to engage in this history in one afternoon: the King Richard’s Faire.

Every Fall, King Richard’s Faire descends on Carver Massachusetts. The consumption-focused, creative anachronism that is the King Richard’s faire has become a staple for New Englanders in the Fall, much like haunted hay rides and apple picking. LARPers, lonely computer programmers and local families alike show up to joust, speak in old English (or so they seem to think), show off their abundant bosoms and eat large turkey legs (a New World food).

Never willing to miss an opportunity to eat fried dough (another New World delight) or challenge my Navy-trained sharpshooter friend to an axe-throwing competition (P.S. she won), I set out to tackle this historic travesty.

Let’s be honest though. King Richard’s Faire is hardly how it would have been back in the Renaissance, when a measly hangnail could render you gangrenous (ok, I’m being a little hyperbolic). Most of the caped participants in the faire had all their teeth, limbs and presumably were not afflicted by any common ailments that would have killed and maimed us 400+ years ago: smallpox, leprosy, cholera.

But let’s say you were recreating the Renaissance. You’ve spent the day working in the fields, trying to make gold out of lead, or painting a picture of some naked lady or fruit or something. You come home from a hard day and your busty (but toothless) wife/servant has baked you an elegant loaf of bread and maybe a mutton chop. Both delicious, no doubt, but within a few hours your stomach doesn’t feel very good. Great, you think, my busty wife/servant undercooked the beef again. But then you start to twitch, convulse, get hot all over and enter into a phase of mania and psychosis. If you keep eating your wife’s cooking (you idiot), gangrene will take your fingers and toes and a couple days later you will probably die (3).

I’m rather surprised they don’t include this creative element in King Richard’s Faire – though it may be challenging to throw axes while in a thumbless delirium.

It turns out, your little convulsive, gangrenous self is suffering from St. Anthony’s Fire (aka Ergotism), caused by an alkaloid secondary compound (aka nitrogen-containing defensive compound) produced by the Ergot fungus. Ain’t the old days great?

The Ergot fungus grows on rye and other grains and uses these alkaloids to keep animals from eating it (i.e. insects, cows and you, dummy).

This fungus has been harassing people since long before the Renaissance, but it is most popularly known now for introducing a Swiss chemist to lysergic acid diethylamide (aka LSD), a derivative of the fungus, which he accidentally synthesized and then ingested in the early 1940’s, leading to the crazy ‘60’s and the reason why we can never really have a reasonable conversation with our parents.

But how does climate impact this fungus? Ergot fungi in particular love humidity (think swimming-in-the-air levels) and are sensitive to changes in the climate (5).

In 2001, several reports of gangrene in the Arsi Zone of Ethiopia resulted in researchers discovering an outbreak of the Ergot fungus there. Locals described unusually moist and cloudy weather over the previous 3 years that investigators think helped perpetuate the fungus in this region. As locals were not familiar with this disease, they did not recognize it and consumed the infected grains (8), yuck.

Livestock when fed grains contaminated with this fungus have similar responses as people do (7) – though I’m not sure about the hallucinations, I think their ears just fall off. They are not nearly as good at expressing when they’ve been exposed as people (no writhing, no hollering), as most commonly they tend to get overheated and then sometimes die.

So, is climate change going to render us fingerless rubes with teatless cows?

Don’t panic yet though. In regions where this gnarly fungus is more common, grain cleaning technologies, a better understanding of its lifecycle and simple identification has reduced the impact on people and animals (1).

For livestock, farmers just need to pay attention. Cutting off the seed-heads of contaminated grains or diluting the feed with outside protein sources is enough to keep the cattle’s ears, tails and teats all intact (2). Waiting a month after harvesting can also help reduce the toxicity of the alkaloids (6).

Even in bad climate conditions, these are things that we have control over. But what are the anticipated effects of climate change on the Ergot fungus?

That is still not entirely clear. If a changing climate shifts the areas affected by this fungus, then regions not familiar with Ergot may not be prepared to identify and manage outbreaks (i.e. what happened in Ethiopia). For this reason, researchers have called for greater investigation into these fungi, how they will change with climate change and what regions will be most effected (4).

Personally, I’m all for more research. As much as I mock the historical inaccuracies of Renaissance fairs, I prefer my turkey legs and fried dough to the realities of lost limbs and hallucinatory biscuits.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. She will not tell you about all the disgusting things she learned about Ergot fungi while researching this article, like how long it takes to lose your toes, the explosive diarrhea it can cause or how much is considered an allowable limit in our diet.

Further Reading:
(1) Ergot of Small Grain Cereals and Grasses
(2) BOARD-INVITED REVIEW: St. Anthony’s Fire in livestock: Causes, mechanisms, and potential solutions
(3) Toxic effects of mycotoxins in humans
(4) Further mycotoxin effects from climate change
(5) Relationship between sorghum ergot, sowing dates, and climatic variables in Morelos, Mexico
(6) Ergot Alkaloid Concentrations in Tall Fescue Hay during Production and Storage
(7) St. Anthony’s Fire in livestock: Causes, mechanisms, and potential solutions Table 1
(8) Laboratory studies on the outbreak of Gangrenous Ergotism associated with consumption of contaminated barley in Arsi, Ethiopia

Ye Olde Biowarfare: how climate change is affecting hallucinogens (Part 1)

Growing up in New England, you are living, breathing and eating American history.

The place where you picnicked with your grandparents as a kid? That was the birthplace of the American Revolution. That graveyard you snuck into as a teenager on Halloween? That’s where Mother Goose is buried. That naked sex beach you “stumbled upon” last year? That was the location of two of the most useless civil war forts in American history.

And if you’re a disaffected teenager living on the East Coast, there are any number of rebellions to keep you intrigued. There was the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, fought over…whiskey. The Boston Tea Party in Massachusetts fought over…tea. Then there was Bacon’s rebellion, which interestingly was not fought over the delectable treat, but rather was led by a fellow named Bacon against the English-supported Governor of Virginia, William Berkeley. Once perceived as the first rumblings of American separatism, scholars now see the rebellion as more of a power play between rivals resulting in the indiscriminate murder of Native Americans. Let’s just say, not our proudest moment as future Americans.

Beyond the monstrous behavior stemming from this rebellion, Bacon’s rebellion is notable for one other reason: it was the first (only?) recorded use of drugs as a bioweapon in the American fight against the British.

It all centered on a weed that grew in Jamestown, called the Jamestown Weed (now called Jimson Weed), which was known for its hallucinatory effects. The colonists, irate with the British government, cooked the young weed into a boiled salad (yes, they boiled salads back then, weirdos) and served it to several British soldiers who were sent to Jamestown to quell the uprising.

Robert Beverly reported in The History and Present State of Virginia, that the soldiers “turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou’d dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll.” (1)

After a little over a week, the soldiers returned to their normal state, remembering nothing. Though this might sound like an amusing escapade for those of you who enjoy chemical alterations to your reality, you should be warned that the Jimson Weed then was most likely nothing like the Jimson Weed growing wild now. And this has everything to do with climate change.

To understand the effect of climate change on Jimson Weed, you need to know about two alkaloid compounds: atropine and scopolamine. Both of these compounds have hallucinatory effects and they are extremely poisonous when taken in pretty low doses (so please don’t try this at home). Atropine is more widely used in medicine today, while scopolamine was used historically to induce twilight sleep (aka amnesia) in birthing mothers, and later as an unsuccessful truth serum (it’s hard to extract a confession from someone who is screaming in terror because their body is being devoured by voracious insects – a popular hallucination).

It turns out that higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes Jimson Weed plants grow much larger (2), and increases scopolamine concentration in their tissues, while leaving atropine stagnant. Meanwhile, increasing temperature has the opposite effect (atropine goes up, scopolamine stays the same). If we combine carbon dioxide levels, temperature and even the age of the plant, it becomes even more complex, as sometimes atropine concentration goes down (older plants under lower temperature and higher carbon dioxide levels) and sometimes scopolamine concentration goes up (younger plants under higher temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels) (3). Yikes!

Is it possible that other plants that create similar noxious and hallucinatory chemicals will be changed in a similar fashion with climate change?

Perhaps. A study on the related (and equally toxic) Belladonna in the 1950’s suggested that the percent of alkaloids in the dried plant increased with the age of the plant and had an ideal temperature (with the greatest percentage of alkaloids) at 73 degrees Fahrenheit, with reduced percent alkaloids at higher and lower temperatures (4).

Sadly though research in the 1950’s was seemingly a little more casual, as they never state which alkaloids they measured (Atropine? Scopalamine? Hyoscyamine?) and they state in their methods that they analyzed their data “mathematically”. Studies these days actually require you to publish what “math” you used. Oh to be a scientist in 1956….

So, is it possible that the Jimson Weed fed to those poor British soldiers was a less noxious form of the one found today?

Given that the colonists picked the plant while it was young, in an environment that had lower carbon dioxide and lower temperature than today, it might have been. Which may explain why when unruly teenagers attempt to reenact this aspect of the revolutionary war today, they end up like this. Much like all good things, they just don’t make Jimson Weed like they used to. Now, sadly, it’s deadly.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. She wants to remind the readers that Jimson Weed, Belladonna and many other related plants are poisonous and will kill you, so please do not eat them. She realizes that readers may have hoped for an article on more popularly consumed Biological hallucinogens such as peyote or mushrooms. She encourages you to stay tuned for future blog posts in which she will address the effect of climate change on the Ergot fungus (required for LSD). Turns out climate change is going to mess with all biological organisms, but especially your stoner neighbor next door. Poor guy.

Further Reading:
(1) The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts.
(2) The Effects of Elevated CO2 on Plants: Flower, Fruit and Seed Production
(3) Alterations in the production and concentration of selected alkaloids as a function of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and air temperature: implications for

(4) Influence of the temperature on growth and alkaloid content of first-year Atropa belladonna L.

Smokin’ hot: the effect of climate change on tobacco

Last week in the blog, I wrote about the effect of climate change on coca plants. In it, I related a story of a high elevation trip to Peru which had my friend passing out in a hotel lobby and me barely able to walk up the front steps due to altitude sickness – both of us requiring the medicinal powers of coca tea.

What I didn’t tell you about this story, was that when my friend was set up with an oxygen tank to help relieve her altitude sickness, I plunked down right next to her and lit up a cigarette. Now I know you are probably thinking, smoking right next to an oxygen tank is up there with other wise decisions 20-somethings make like starting literary magazines and wearing tiny hats. I’d like to pretend it was my own altitude ailments that were clouding my judgment, but unfortunately it was something far more nefarious – nicotine addiction. Like every good smoker, I adored nicotine, and not even a thin-aired, potentially explosive environment was going to keep me from lighting up.

Now living in California, smoking cigarettes is about as popular as eating conventionally grown vegetables (you horrible monster!!!), so the smoking has ended. But it doesn’t change me from wanting to know how climate change will effect tobacco, specifically nicotine. Fortunately tobacco as a model agricultural organism (and until recently, major cash crop) has ample research associated with it.

As I mentioned last week, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is going to increase the growth of tobacco plants (smokers say “yeah!”) while decreasing nicotine concentration (smokers say “boo!”). Meanwhile increasing temperature will have no effect on nicotine levels (1). Ok, so all the smokers are now wondering “WTF?”, because in the future there will be both higher carbon dioxide and temperatures – so, will they just cancel each other out? Sorry smokers, but the combination of the two will still decrease nicotine concentrations. This would make your cigarettes less potent if you were just smoking straight tobacco, but fortunately(?) it has been suggested that tobacco companies closely monitor and adjust nicotine levels in cigarettes, so you may not notice the difference (Phillip Morris, please don’t sue me for mentioning this!).

Though people have taken on nicotine as a beloved alkaloid, it isn’t really meant for us. Nicotine is a defensive compound plants use against insects. When insects munch on a tobacco plant stocked with nicotine, they either flat out die or grow slower and smaller (2). Let’s just say that even insects that are well-equipped to handle nicotine, are not well-treated by the stuff (3)—much like humans. So if a plant is larger, juicier and has less nicotine, it is going to be more pleasant for the insects to munch on, requiring greater amounts of pesticides to combat the herbivory.

But nicotine isn’t all about defense, it’s also used to promote reproduction. Wild tobacco plants actually use nicotine (and it’s gnarly, bitter taste) to get hummingbird pollinators to hop from flower to flower (“ew, this one tastes gross”; “oh, this one tastes slightly better!”) (4). The researchers on this study seemed to think that the hummingbirds weren’t addicted to the nicotine, so they must have been slow learners because who keeps going back to food that tastes terrible. In any case, there does not seem to be any studies on how climate change will influence nicotine in tobacco flowers, but if it follows a similar pattern as the leaves, then there will also be a reduction in nicotine. This could reduce cross-pollination as there wouldn’t be as many gnarly tasting flowers keeping the hummingbirds moving.

So suddenly the effect of climate change on tobacco has less and less to do with smokers and industry (and how I gave myself asthma), and everything to do with the birds and the bees (or at least the tobacco hornworms)! With all things climate related, it isn’t just about us people, it turns out that when it comes to having a love affair with tobacco, other animals may be just as dumb.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. Though she had a brief love affair with nicotine, she is now happily married to sunshine, lollypops and other healthy California addictions (plastic surgery??). She would like to note that the relationship between tobacco and climate change goes beyond nicotine levels. An excellent Union of Concerned Scientists report found that the same “scientists” and “researchers” who promoted the safety of cigarettes in the 1990’s are now disputing climate change. Check it out, it will disturb you.

For your reading enjoyment:
(1) Alterations in the production and concentration of selected alkaloids as a function of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and air temperature: implications for ethno-pharmacology
(2) Effects of dietary nicotine on the development of an insect herbivore, its parasitoid and secondary hyperparasitoid over four trophic levels
(3) Nicotine Keeps Leaf-Loving Herbivores at Bay
(4) Unpredictability of nectar nicotine promotes outcrossing by hummingbirds in Nicotiana attenuata

Hotter and Higher? Coca plants in a Changing Climate

When I was in my mid-20’s I traveled to Peru to visit my roommate from college who was working in Lima. She insisted that we travel into the Andes mountains to see one of the greatest works of mankind, Machu Picchu. To get there under 30 hours, we had to take a plane to Cuzco from Lima (just over an hour!) and then travel to the monument from there, but there is one hitch: Lima is at sea level and Cuzco is at 11,000 feet.

When the plane landed in Cuzco and they opened the cabin doors to the outside, we could literally feel the oxygen being sucked out of the cabin. The air was thin and quite frankly we didn’t last very long. By the time we had made it to the hotel, my friend had passed out and my head was throbbing in pain. I was so dizzy that when a 5.0 earthquake hit the city, I spent a good five minutes arguing with my friend as to whether it was really an earthquake or just the altitude sickness. By the time we made it outside, the earthquake was long past and people just stared at us wondering “Where the hell were you??” We had the altitude sickness and there was no cure. Or was there?

In Cuzco, as in many other high elevation locales in South America, there was one recommended treatment for altitude sickness: coca tea. And there is no question that it worked. Really well. A few sips relieved the stress in my head, allowed me to walk in a straight line and gave me the strength to lift my oxygen-deprived legs high enough to climb the stairs to our hotel room. It worked so well, that on my most recent trip to high elevation in India (complete with throbbing headaches and shallow breathing), I was deeply missing the tea.

So of course, when I returned, my mind turned to the science. How will coca plants adapt to climate change? In the years to come, will poor climbers like me have anything as reliable to give them relief from the dreaded altitude? And what about all the modern-day party kids reliving the highlights of the Go-Go 80’s – will they have to stick to reminiscing about Z cavariccis and un-ironic mullets, or will they be able to relive the less classy moments of Bright Lights, Big City?

The active ingredient in coca is an alkaloid (i.e. nitrogen containing compound) called benzoylmethylecgonine (say that 10 times fast – or just once, good luck!) Alkaloids are extremely common in plants, used as defensive compounds against insects, and they often have the added benefit of getting people buzzed (that cigarette you just smoked would have killed an aphid). You are no doubt familiar with the more legal (and even more beloved) varieties of alkaloids: nicotine, caffeine, morphine and codeine.

Published literature at the turn of the last century indicated that though the coca plants prosper in a variety of temperatures, alkaloid content is actually reduced by higher temperatures (1). Unfortunately, it was not clear in the literature what temperatures would induce the reduction or even what temperatures coca plants prefer – I think you need to be a Peruvian herbalist or drug lord to know these things for sure. From my literature search, it seems like the turn of century (before coca became a favored party drug) was the last time researchers looked into the alkaloid content of coca.

Fortunately hypotheses in science can be built on conjecture from similar organisms. So how is climate change going to affect alkaloid content in other plants? Well that is where it gets a little tricky – because it depends on the plant and it depends on the alkaloid. For example, though the beloved tobacco plant will grow larger in a high carbon dioxide environment (smokers everywhere cheer!), it will decrease its nicotine concentration – so dear smokers you may need to light up twice as much to get nearly the same buzz (2). Meanwhile the ever faithful poppy plant will increase both morphine and codeine in a higher carbon dioxide environment (3) – good news if you plan to get your wisdom teeth pulled in the next 100 years.

So what does this all mean? It means that not all plants or alkaloids are made equal, even if they are all nitrogen-containing compounds that people love to get buzzed on. If journeymen (and journey-ladies like me) want to know whether we’ll be able to seek relief in coca tea while hiking in high altitude in the future when the air is thick with carbon dioxide and a couple degrees warmer, we’ll just have to return to Machu Pichu in 100 years to see.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area. As a former smoker, a caffeine junky, a lover of unblemished fruit and having had *all four* wisdom teeth taken out in one day, she is enamored with all of the joys and delights that alkaloids can bring to people’s lives. She plans to devote the next couple of blog posts to these excellent chemicals and climate change.

For your reading enjoyment:
(1) Peru: History of Coca
(2) Alterations in the production and concentration of selected alkaloids as a function of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and air temperature: implications for ethno-pharmacology
(3) Recent and projected increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the potential impacts on growth and alkaloid production in wild poppy (Papaver setigerum DC.)

Frosty glaciers keeping the world cozy warm

Here is the reason not to go to India: Eat, Pray, Love. These are not my words. These are the words of the three delightful embassy workers I had dinner with on my second night in New Delhi. When I asked them what the most common problem Americans had when coming to India (I thought lost passports would be up there), in unison they all responded, “Eat, Pray, Love.” It seems that the book (and then later the movie) inspired many Americans (young and old, male and female) to travel to India to “find themselves”, where they then visited extremely remote ashrams, took lots of drugs (the Tantras are apparently very big with this) and then landed themselves in jail. The ladies asked that I kindly not try to find myself in India, and if I absolutely must, that I do so without the aid of an insane amount of drugs. I told them, no problem. I live in Berkeley where within a two block radius of my house I could easily find both.

Here is the reason to go to India: Glaciers. Now I know you are probably thinking that with several thousand years of complex religious and political history, bustling markets with everything from fabulously bejeweled Saris to nausea-inducing butcheries (check out backside of the Crawford market in Mumbai) and the most breath-taking man-made structure in the world – the Taj Mahal – that I would have to be crazy to overlook them for something as boring as a glacier. But let me tell you, having now seen glaciers in Northern India; glaciers are huge, they are important and when you go see them, they will literary knock your socks off.

As a scientist with an interest in both soils and climate change (and a former New England resident who was never able to grow a straight carrot due to rocky soils derived from glacial till), seeing a glacier is like coming home for the very first time. (When we got to the first glacier, I jumped up and down and shouted “This is how soil is made!! This is how soil is made!!”) But you probably already know that glaciers build soil, are large repositories of fresh water and their melting will increase sea levels globally. So I won’t bore you with the basics.

Ironically, among the many global impacts glaciers have on water availability and climate, it’s actually their current chilly existence that is keeping places like Europe so mild and toasty warm.

A prime example are the the glaciers in Greenland that everyone is always griping about. If these glaciers melt, icy fresh water will enter the Atlantic ocean and disrupt the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). AMOC is an ocean conveyor belt that moves warm water from the equator to Northern regions and brings cold water from the North back down to the equator (click here for a cool video).

This movement of heat through the oceans actually helps warm Europe, making it the lovely, temperate place that made me curse the Spanish every winter when they were toasty warm and I was a frosty little ice cube living at the same latitude in Boston (snooty Europeans with their awesome weather, grrr). Turns out latitude isn’t everything, the AMOC is important too. And if the AMOC slows down, Europe could become a little frosty too (1).

This cooling of Europe from a slowing of the AMOC has been seen before, a loooong time ago in an era known as the Younger Dryas or the Big Freeze which occurred about 12,000 years ago (dramatized more hilariously in the movie The Day After Tomorrow). This led to a massive cool down of the North, with a summer temperature in central Europe of about 50 degrees F (2). Suckers.

For those of you who just purchased a summer bungalow in southern Spain anticipating a toasty warm retirement, never fear! Most experts in the field believe that we will be faced with a slowdown of the AMOC, rather than a complete shutdown (3). Moreover, NASA has predicted that the 5 degree cooling Europe might see from the slowing of the AMOC will be more than offset by global warming predicted for the same region (4) – thank God for global warming? So just rev up your SUVs, keep burning coal, maybe even plan a trip to see some glaciers yourself in India…. just plan to buy a retirement home a little more inland – who knows, it might be lovely beach front property by 2100.

For your reading enjoyment:
(1) Potential climatic transitions with profound impact on Europe
(2) Mean July Temperatures during the Younger Dryas in Northwestern and Central Europe as Inferred from Climate Indicator Plant Species
(3) Expert judgements on the response of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation to climate change
(4) Ocean Motion and Surface Currents

Minda Berbeco just hiked the Himalayas in Northern India, evading certain death twice. While there she traversed ice flows, drank tea in mountain huts, hunted pika and was chased by several toddlers seeking Kit Kat bars (who would’ve guessed they’d be so popular there??).

The future is itchy

I rarely claim to have any supernatural abilities.  Yes, I did have a great aunt who was a self-reported psychic, and yes, when she told my grandfather that she saw “water” in his future, he did return home to find a broken pipe leaking water everywhere.  But let’s just say that most of those supernatural qualities ended in my lineage a few generations ago.  I do, though, have two qualities that I would qualify as super-awesome (if not superhuman).  They are that I don’t bruise and I don’t itch, or at least I only do so rarely.

Of all the possible superhuman traits: breathing underwater, flying, seeing through walls… let’s face it, Dr. Superman PhD, the field ecologist, would envy my abilities.  Sure he may be faster than a speeding bullet, but is he faster than black flies in August in the back woods of Maine?  I think I’ve got one up on him, if I do say so myself. I don’t out-fly them, I just don’t feel them.

So, it is not for myself that I am writing this blog post.  It is for all of you, with other non-itch-related superhuman traits (double jointed? Can do that weird twisty thing with your tongue?) with swollen eyes, itchy welts and a bruised outdoors spirit.  I have bad news for you folks, if you think the world is itchy now, just wait a couple years.

For those who suffer from “the itch”, the outlook for one of most hated, foulest, itchiest plants of them all, poison ivy is not so good.  It turns out a higher atmospheric carbon environment is a better place for poison ivy to grow (1).  In addition, researchers discovered that though the plants didn’t make more of the itching compound, urushiol, they did make a more noxious form of it.  Which is sort of worse, if you ask me.

Now plants are not the only evil conspirators when it comes to an itch-free future, as ponds and lakes may become less hospitable in the hot summers because of the dreaded swimmer’s itch.

Swimmers itch (aka cercarial dermatitis, aka gross) is an immune response to little parasites that invade your skin when you are swimming. It’s actually good to get itchy because that means your body has identified the invaders and is working on ejecting them from your body.  In this case itch = good.

So where do these parasites come from?  Snails.  Where do the snails get them?  Bird poop.  So yes, if you get swimmer’s itch, there is a high chance you’ve been swimming in bird poop.  But you are in a pond, in the summer, surrounded by birds, so what did you expect? (Click here for a life cycle animation)

Since these parasites are dependent on several hosts: birds, snails, you….a good environment for any of these animals is a better world for the parasites (2).  So a warmer, longer summer can result in birds hanging out in a pond longer, just pooping away onto snails that are active for a longer part of the season and are now infested with larvae that experience accelerated growth due to the warmer weather.  And then there is you.  Swimming around to cool off in the hot summer day.  You vector.

Now back on the mainland, the ever-itch inducing mosquitoes are really no different.  To generalize you could say that mosquitoes love warmth, they love standing water, they love a warmer Spring which allows for an earlier seasonal emergence.  There isn’t any reason that mosquitoes wouldn’t love climate change.  The big concern with mosquitoes though, is not that they are annoying, but that they are disease-vectors.

For disease-carrying mosquitoes, like the Asian tiger mosquito, the number of mosquitoes will not change as much as the range that they will cover.  The Asian tiger mosquito is responsible for the gift of dengue and chikungunya fevers which can not only give you an awesome rash, but horrible fevers and vomiting.  Yeah Mosquitoes!

In a warmer, wetter environment, Western and Central Europe will become a hospitable place for these mosquitoes in the next 100 years, while Southern Europe will end up too hot and dry (3).  More reason to get that summer home in Mallorca.

So now that I have completely grossed you out and made you itch all over at the thought of the your future, will you run out and stock up a barrels of Benadryl?  Will my descendants become itch-free superhuman gods?  Will we avoid ponds, woods and Northern Europe altogether to preserve our sanity?  Or will we do what we’ve always done: buck up, suit up and enjoy the great outdoors?

Further Reading for Your Pleasure:
(1)    Biomass and toxicity responses of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to elevated atmospheric CO2
(2)   Snails, waterfowl and cercarial dermatitis
(3)   Projection of climatic suitability for Aedes albopictus Skuse (Culicidae) in Europe under climate change conditions 

*Special thanks for UC Berkeley for free access to the literature.  Power to the People.  I apologize that most of these documents are behind a pay wall.  I encourage you to complain to your congressman.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area.  She would like to thank her friends for answering the call to list as many itchy things as possible.  Here is a short list of what they came up with: Hair shirt, Cats, Rashes, Wool, Bug Bites, Prickly Insulation Fuzz, Razor Burn, Allergies, Jelly fish, Lice, Talking about Lice, Chiggers, Poison Ivy, Bee Stings, T-Shirt and Undies Tags, Freshly Cut Grass, Sunburn Acquired Near the Equator, Nettles, Tarantulas, Prickly heat, Fire Ants, Burlap, Trigger Fingers and Running!  I’m not sure I get the running part.

The paradox of scientific research

Minda’s note: While I am hiking the Himalayan mountains this week, my friend and fellow scientist, Olivia Yu from UC Davis agreed to fill in for me.  She asks the paradoxical question: can ecologists also be environmentalists?  See below for her thoughts on the topic….

The paradox of scientific research by Olivia Yu

[The purpose of this article is not to denigrate research, scientists, or the field of climate change; simply to make a case to include environmental awareness to general science education.]

The paradox of doing science is the quantity of natural resources used in the process. Present- day scientific research generally requires copious and continual input of natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable. Many projects are energy and resource-intensive, i.e., transportation to remote locations and long-term monitoring. Yet, this paradox is most apparent in the field of climate change science, where the study of environmental changes requires substantial expenditure of natural resources, which contributes to further climatic changes. Field experiments often require considerable energy input to simulate the effect of a future world with varying degrees of temperature increases. Many experiments use nonrenewable resources such as oil or natural gas to observe these changes.

For example, in the famous Harvard Forest where climate change research has been occurring for the past 15 years, one current experiment applies a constant stream of a forced warm air through a section of the forest to simulate a warmer climate in the future. Likewise, ecological research related to climatological changes is located in remote locations by definition, such as the Arctic and Antarctic. Transportation to either poles and importation of fuel, food, and materials and supplies to conduct research require use of fossil fuels. Particularly because ecological studies span multiple seasons, the acquisition of this data translate to a high carbon footprint and thus, greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Regardless of the relationship to climate science research, laboratory work, particularly when microbiological/genetic techniques are employed, necessitates large quantity of disposable items and energy-dense chemicals. The production of these items and proper disposal adds to the carbon footprint of a research project. Beyond the data collection stage, data analysis may be even more energy-intensive. The processing of large data sets, which include modeling, can require significant computing power.

However, not all is doom and gloom. With a new generation of scientists, who are more environmentally conscientious, conventional methodologies are evolving to decrease energy inputs to address biological and climatological questions. Several of the modifications include reusing or decreasing use of disposable materials, processing of data off-site and during off- peak hours, increasing use of modeling over empirical research, and collecting data remotely. Despite the fact that some of these alterations are due to shrinking budgets; the silver lining is the promotion of data efficiency (collection of sufficient data for statistical power) and cohesiveness. Over-collection of data wastes resources, time, and money. Equipment sharing can lead to more collaboration among scientists within departments. Also, scientists are increasingly aware of the carbon footprint of transportation, not to mention the time, and thus, are organizing more teleconferences and webinars. Departmental managers are encouraging principal investigators to periodically purge samples in storage in the name of energy efficiency.

One of the strongest assets of climate scientists is their interdisciplinary background, which contributes to a more holistic approach to addressing research questions and self-assessing the impact of their research to the human population and the natural environment. So, a challenge for you, the reader: what will you modify to decrease the carbon footprint of your work environment? If you are a scientist, will/have you consider the environmental impact of your research? If so, will you alter your research methodology to decrease resource use, especially non-renewables, to address your research goals? Furthermore, if you are a principal investigator, are you willing to purge your data- once it is published of course- in the name of energy conservation?

PS. The original title of this piece was ‘Scientists are not treehuggers,’ but I thought that would be too easily misinterpreted and misrepresent scientists as a population who are genuinely interested in studying the environment. I am not looking to pick a fight nor am I interested in idolizing treehuggers, but I am a scientist who studies climate change and likes to have trees to hug in the future.

Chill out man: climate change and the future of marijuana

Moving to California, I learned quickly that everyone smokes pot here.  Everywhere.  All the time.  People smoke openly on their porches, walking down the street, even pulling their cars onto the highway (a little scary).  Our favorite bar doesn’t have a reserved area for cigarette smokers outside (cigarettes are so bad for you!!), they have a reserved area for pot smoking (not official and not legal, of course).  Taking a bike ride through Oakland on a Friday afternoon takes you through one sweet smelling cloud to the next…to the next…to the next, for nearly 8 miles.  It has become as normalized here as a cup of morning coffee.

As a beloved plant, that society appears to worship, there is a wealth information out there about it.  Unfortunately, as a plant whose main side effects are the munchies and watching Adult Swim, the research is not so good.

So when I wanted to write a blog post on the effect of climate change on cannabis – plant growth, health and of course environmental effects on the development and strength of the psychotropic component THC – I was disappointed to find that rather than wading through scientific papers, I was buried under  webpages with dancing smoke plumes and industry newsletters.  For the most beloved plant in America, the research is extremely thin.

Though there is ample scientific literature on the effects of THC on mice (how many NIH grants does it take to figure out that mice get the munchies too?!?!) and a couple of interesting articles about the negative environmental effects of cultivation (Mexican drug cartels taking over pristine national park land (1) and indoor cultivation carbon footprints (2)), it is slim pickings when it comes to climate change.

I did find some literature dating back nearly 40 years suggesting that THC, like some other phenolic compounds, is used by plants as a defense against pests, and that temperature can have an effect on THC development (like with some other phenolic defensive compounds in other plants).  The sources though were so cringe-worthy I refused to include them in this post.  Let’s just say there is a gap in the literature that perhaps could be an interesting pursuit for a researcher.

However, I did find some information about the effect of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations on the cannabis plant.   Now if you are a grower or spend a lot of time on those websites with the dancing bears, then you already know that sticking a tank of carbon dioxide in your grow house and running outside as you crank it open, will make those plants boom.  However, let’s pretend those people don’t read science blogs.

It turns out, that over the next 40 years, an increase of carbon dioxide concentrations to 545 ppm (what is expected by 2050) won’t have much effect on the cannabis plant (3).  However, when grown in carbon dioxide concentrations of 700 ppm (what is expected by 2100), plant growth takes off.  Both their photosynthesis and water-use efficiency go way up (i.e. more growth while needing less water, which is generally a good thing).  This is not unique to cannabis plants, as similar studies have found that other plants respond in a similar way.  A Duke University study, in which researchers pumped carbon dioxide into a temperate forest (your tax dollars at work), found that poison ivy took off in this carbon-rich environment and produced more allergenic compounds (awesome!)(4).   In California, a study at Stanford University found that the ever-prickly agricultural pest, the yellow star-thistle, will also do well in a high-carbon environment, out-competing other grassland plants and slowly driving farmers insane (5).

In a carbon-rich world 100 years from now, when our environment is over-run with poison ivy and star thistle; where rising sea levels will displace millions of people causing natural disaster refugees; where warmer temperatures will increase epidemic risks and famines globally; I think we’ll be very glad that the cannabis plant is doing so well.  We’ll probably need it.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area.  Unlike everyone around her, she does not smoke, but she does enjoy the mellow scented cloud that descends on Berkeley every Friday afternoon and lasts through the weekend.  Some people say it’s the fog coming off the ocean.  This is California after all.

Future Reading for Your Enjoyment!

  1.  Marijuana National Forest: Encroachment on California Public Lands for Cannabis Cultivation
  2.  The carbon footprint of indoor Cannabis production
  3. Photosynthetic response of Cannabis sativa L., an important medicinal plant, to elevated levels of CO2
  4. Biomass and Toxicity Responses of Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to Elevated Atmospheric CO₂
  5. Strong response of an invasive plant species (Centaurea solstitialis L.) to global environmental changes


Climate Change Makes the Napa Wine Industry Thrive

If I had to sum up living in Northern California in only a couple words, it would be sun, sun, sun, warm, sun and wine.  I have to admit that I live in the most beautiful part of the world.  The temperature is between 65 and 85 every day.  It is sunny and clear, complimented occasionally with a light breeze.  There are always flowers blooming and birds chirping year round.  I’ve actually gotten into arguments with friends about which day was more beautiful: today, yesterday or the day before (“Well yesterday had a slight mild breeze…”).  This amazing weather is not just good for the people, it’s good for agriculture and it is *great* for wine.

Wine-grape growing has got to be one of the pickiest, most neurotic forms of farming in the world.  Everything from the soil constituents to the berry traits is monitored with a hawk-eye by the farmer and the wine-makers.  In viticulture (grape growing) there is a popular term called “terroir”.  This is French for the flavor characteristics a given region gives the food grown there.  Terroir is influenced by the soil, the elevation and most notably the climate.  All three have to align for the perfect wine to be made.  Too hot and you get a very jammy wine (try something from the central valley to see what I mean), too cool and your vines might just die.  Growers work to stress their vines to bring out more of the flavor elements; they manipulate water and fertilizer to try to acquire the best possible taste.  But the reality is, you can manipulate the plants all you want, if you have a bad climate you have bad wine.

It turns out that regions like Napa and Sonoma know this well as they have a fantastic climate for viticulture, and most likely have global climate change to thank for it.  During the late 20th century, a small increase in temperature of a little more than 1 degree Celsius over less than 50 years resulted in a substantial increase (65 days!) in frost-free growing days.  It also moved up the growing season in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, allowing buds to burst out early by over two weeks.  This change in climate just so happened to coincide with when the Napa valley began dominating the global wine scene with amazing high quality wines.   Coincidence?  It depends who you ask.

Now this is where making connections between climate change and flavor becomes tricky.  How does one evaluate the quality of a wine?  Isn’t it very subjective?  The answer is yes and no.  There are certain components you can measure.  Aside from sugars which obviously contribute to the wine’s flavor, tannins and other phenolics are responsible for  the astringency of wine, while anthocyanins contribute to the color.  All of these constituents are pretty easy to measure.

But really, quality as we perceive it, is a combination of many factors and this is where making the connection to climate change becomes tricky.  As a result, connoisseurs have focused more on subjective analyses giving wine a rating from 1-100 for example (as with the Sotheby’s rating system).  It turns out that the change in climate that occurred in Napa in the second half of the 20th century was closely connected to increased scores on the Sotheby’s rating system.

It seems like this is an open and shut case, but correlation is not necessarily causation.  It just so happens that during this time there were some major innovations in agriculture: new pesticides, fertilizers and equipment.  In reality it could be a perfect storm (pun intended) of new practices and a better understanding of the science of grape growing and wine making coupled with a more amenable climate with a longer growing season and fewer frosts.

Causation, correlation or just reason for celebration, the prevalence of affordable, bold and delicious wines in Northern California coupled with a mild climate make it an ideal home for person and berry alike.


Minda has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area.  When unable to afford a $200 bottle of Opus One, she enjoys the more affordable 7 Zins from Michael David in the Central Valley.  This is California after all.


Future Reading:
Asymmetric warming over coastal California and its impact on the premium wine industry
Climate change and global wine quality


In a hotter climate, a troubled tea?

Living in Berkeley California exposes you to enthusiasts of all types; we have yoga gurus, herbal devotees and wine connoisseurs galore.  At a party last week, a man from Georgia wearing wool knit socks as shoes and Mexican beaded jewelry showed up with a suit case filled with tea.  He was a tea obsessive, which honestly I’ve never run into this side of the pond.  Did we want an herbal infusion with spearmint and marshmallow (the plant, not the gooey treat)? Would we consider a pu’erh tea that smelled like toes and tasted like mushrooms?  This one is magical, ingredients secret…would we consider a second cup?  Having had a rather rebellious youth, I had learned early on not to take tea (or other unknown substances) from strangers, or at least know what to expect.  A hilarious bike ride home and a sleepless night for my fiancé (who enjoyed three cups), led me to believe I was correct in sticking to water.  However the whole incident made me think about the tea drinkers of the world.  What is it about tea that makes them so fanatical and where will they be in 50 years as tea flavors change with climate change?

At first look, it would seem that tea, like all plants, would do well in a warmer environment with more carbon dioxide (ie what is predicted with climate change).  Don’t plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis?  Doesn’t more photosynthesis equal more plant growth?  Wouldn’t higher temperatures equal a longer growing season?  Wouldn’t that be more time for any plant to grow and prosper?

From this perspective, climate change rocks.  But think for a minute about apples, which require cold snaps to flower, being trapped in regions with progressively warmer winters.  Or strawberries, that are overcome by mold in hotter, wetter summers.  Plants are fickle, they are not all about unencumbered growth, and tea plants are no different.

Growing in tropical and subtropical climates, tea is an ideal hillside crop, with lovely tea being plucked from high elevations.  Loving warm, wet environments, tea has been prospering in these regions for thousands of years.  As a result, if you change the climate, you will no doubt change the availability of tea.  For countries that are dependent on tea for their economic prosperity like Sri Lanka, lower tea growing regions are expected to see changes in rain and temperature (1).  Changes in climate in these areas equate to a lower yield.  For a region that has just come out of a 25 year civil war, an economic downturn in one of its largest exports would be devastating.

However with tea, like wine, cheese and chocolate, it’s not about how much you can drink, it’s about how it tastes. Similar to wine, the climate of the region where you grow your tea can change its terroir (flavors developed by the regional characteristics of where it was grown).  And this is where tea could really be in trouble.

Tea depends on a couple of compounds to give it its delightful flavor.  These compounds vary throughout the season, and are impacted by the environment (2).  One of these groups of compounds, polyphenolics, are carbon-dominated molecules that are responsible for a range of activities in plants, from defense against insects to protection from sun exposure.  In tea they are known for giving the drink its astringent flavor, its deep color and some of its positive health effects.  Based on research that has found that these compounds change with temperature and rainfall in other plants from red maple trees (3) to tomato leaves (4), it wouldn’t be hard to guess that they would change in tea leaves too (NSF grant anyone?).

Tea is a large enough industry for the Journal of Food Chemistry to devote a special issue this coming year to tea and only tea: tea quality, tea flavors, tea nutrition and, most importantly, environmental influences on tea sensory properties (that means how climate effects flavor) (5).  So tea drinkers, enthusiasts, lovers and obsessives, what about the future of tea?  How important is terroir to your tea drinking experience?  Will tea prices inflate as a changing climate moves tea plantations up the mountainside?  Moreover, what will happen when the price of tea in China will be more than a suitcase wielding hippie in Berkeley can bear?

Minda has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science blogger in the Bay area.  She enjoys her tea at Far Leaves Tea on San Pablo, where a pot of Pu’erh Gold and a sesame bun will set her back $8 and 3 hours in quiet contemplation.  This is California after all.

Further reading for your enjoyment:
1Assessment of impact of climate change on productivity of tea (Camellia sinensis L.) plantations in Sri Lanka
2 Seasonal variation of total phenolic, antioxidant activity And minerals in fresh tea shoots (camellia sinensis Var. Sinensis)
3 Changes in the structural composition and reactivity of Acer rubrum leaf litter tannins exposed to warming and altered precipitation: climatic stress-induced tannins are more reactive
4Resistance to cold and heat stress: accumulation of phenolic
compounds in tomato and watermelon plants

5 Special issue of Food Research International on Tea – from bushes to mugs: composition, stability and health aspects