Category Archives: Environment

Can animals evolve to survive climate change?


Many who might be skeptical that climate change is a problem that results from Human activities will say, as a last refrain:

“Oh, anyway… animals can just evolve to survive rising temperature.”

But is this true?

funny-hot-dog-melting-picsCharled Darwin had a dreadful time trying to convince his Victorian peers that evolution by natural selection was a real process in nature. This is because he could not demonstrate unequivocally that is was happening. And the reason that he could not demonstrate that it was happening is that it happens slowly.

I mean, part of the process of evolution results when organisms adapt to new and changing environments. This adaptation takes place over hundreds or thousands of generations. The snow leopard will not just simply decide that it’s too warm and shed its fur so that all is hunky-dory.

Thinking about Human generation times – arguably 20 years – hundreds of generations means that it takes 5000-10000 years to notice even very small changes that result from mutation of genes that might confer an evolutionary advantage in a given situation. Most organisms have shorter generation times but even the smallest adaptations gotten through evolution will realistically take 1000s of years.

I saw a calculation recently that showed that animals can ‘evolve’ at a rate that would make them able to adapt to temperature change of 1 degree celsius per million years. Present calculations show that our average temperature on earth will likely rise by 4 degrees celsius by the end of this century. Evolution needs to work, uh, let’s see… (4 degrees in 87 years = 1 degree in 21.75 years, and 1,000,000 / 21.75 = 45977), 46,000 times faster than it does now. That isn’t going to happen.

The funny thing is that an average temperature rise of 4 degrees doesn’t seem like that much to us. It will have devestating consequences for our planet, however. Ice sheets will melt and the water cycle will be thrown completely out of kilter with consequences like worsening weather, flooding, and drought like we are starting to experience now.

familyAnimals and plants that have evolved to survive in their special environment (and that’s generally what evolution has done) might survive the onslaught of climate change for a while by moving to adjacent environments where it is (choose one – wetter / drier / warmer / colder) but that is a short-term fix.Plants and animals that are adapted to survive in desert environments are separated by hundreds of millions of years of evolution from those that are adapted to survive in very wet conditions.

Our snow leopard really won’t find the prey items that it needs to survive if its habitat warms, and it can’t simply pick up and find a new home like the Bevely Hillbillies did (Kin folks said, Jed, move away from there…)

Forests using less water because of climate change


This article was originally published in Conversation logoThe Conversation

and in Ars Technicaars-technica-logo

Forests using less water because of climate change – a good thing?

Global warming is primarily driven by increasing emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities. Chief among these gases is carbon dioxide (CO2), which warms the planet by trapping heat that would otherwise radiate into space.

9kvm83bg-1374505630But carbon dioxide has effects on things other than the climate. In the journal Nature, Trevor Keenan of Macquarie University and his colleagues report that trees in some forests are using less water to maintain growth than they did only 20 years ago. This puzzling finding has been attributed to the increased levels of CO2, which trees utilise as their carbon source.

Instruments placed in various US forests have been measuring CO2 and water concentrations in the air for many years. These measurements have been correlated with the amount of CO2 locked up by trees over the same period to show that forests have become more efficient at storing carbon. What is more important is that the measurements suggest that the increase in efficiency of storing carbon is six times greater than would be expected if it was just proportional to the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration during the same period.

Increased CO2 availability means that trees have to restrict the opening of their breathing pores (stomata) so that CO2 levels inside their leaves remain constant. But this has additional consequences for the trees. Smaller pores means less water evaporates from their leaf surfaces through these stomatal openings. This effect has been called the “CO2 fertilisation effect”, which means plants can utilise more CO2 to make more carbohydrates, like cellulose and sugars, while using smaller volumes of water overall than previously required.

The fine balance between CO2 uptake and water loss is critical for plant survival. Early predictions by climate scientists were that increasing temperatures would devastate forests. That is because elevated temperatures increase the rate of evaporation and transpiration at leaf surfaces, potentially causing trees to suffer from “water-stress”. Instead, this paper suggests that increased efficiency of water-use by forests might mean that water does not become a limiting factor in productivity as temperatures rise.

This new finding seems like unadulterated good news, therefore, until you factor in the effect that water usage by forests has on components of the ecosystem. Trees move an incredible volume of water from the ground into the atmosphere. That water then forms rain, which helps the connected ecosystem thrive. Large forested areas play a very important role in the water balance and ecology of most agricultural land on Earth.

Keenan and his colleagues examined 21 forest sites going back as much as 20 years, with their data limited to the temperate and boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere. Although this is still a relatively small sample size, this work will probably result in a flurry of research activity to establish what will happen to plant primary productivity in other areas in response to elevated CO2. Keenan said: “We’ve examined the trend upside down and inside out as much as we can, and it is wholly robust.”

Climate scientists use data from studies such as this one to build long-term computer simulations that help them examine potential effects of alterations in variables like temperature, ocean currents and rainfall. Decreased volumes of water being moved by transpiration into the atmosphere will now be added as an input in these simulations in an attempt to predict what the medium and long-term effects of the new observations might be.

On the one hand, more consumption of CO2 by forests will help stem global warming. But on the other hand, less water circulated through more efficient use by trees will mean that non-forest ecosystems may get into trouble.

Tweaking plant biology to solve the food crisis


This article was originally published at The ConversaConversation logotion.

Hacking plant ‘blood vessels’ could avert food crisis

Today’s wars are not about food, but not too far in the future they could be. The number of people dying of starvation has been falling for decades, but the decline in the numbers of hungry people is slowing down. More than 800 million people remain undernourished. With nine billion mouths to feed by 2050, the task of feeding us all is only going to get harder.

There is a solution, though, according to a recent paper in the journal Nature written by some of the world’s leading plant biologists. They show that, by hacking how  plants transport key nutrients into plant cells, we could solve the impending food crisis.

Each plant is made of billions of cells. All these cells are surrounded by membranes. The pores in these membranes are lined with special chemicals called membrane transporters. They do the job of ferrying nutrients that plants capture from soils with the help of roots.

What scientists have learnt is that if such membrane transporters are tweaked, they can enhance plant productivity. When these tweaks are applied to crops, they can produce plants that are high in calories, rich in certain nutrients or fight pests better. All these methods increase food production while using fewer resources.

Currently, world agriculture faces the problem of shrinking arable land, which is the area that is fit for food production. This is why the world’s leading plant biologists argue in the Nature paper that we must embrace genetically modified (GM) plants, many of which have better membrane transporters making them more productive without increasing land use.

Good modification

ngtpvbfh-1368974463Over two billion people suffer from iron or zinc deficiency in their diets. Biofortification involves increasing concentration of such essential minerals. Simple genetic modification increases the amount of membrane transporters that ferry these minerals. Such plants when ready for harvest can have as much as four times the concentration of iron, compared to that of common crop variety.

A little known fact (pdf) is that making fertilisers consumes about 2% of world’s energy. This makes the process a significant contributor to emission of greenhouse gases. Modifying membrane transporters can help cut those emissions, because it can make a plant more effective at using plant fertilisers.

For instance, only 20-30% of phosphorus added to soil as fertilisers is used by crop plants. Tweaking transporters such as PHT1  can increase the uptake of phosphorus. Similar results can be obtained when NRT genes are modified, which increase uptake of nitrogen from fertilisers.

Better resistance

About a third of the Earth’s ice-free land is acidic. The problem is that in highly acidic conditions aluminium in soil exists in a form that is toxic to plants. Such land cannot be used to grow food, but if crops were able to counteract the effects of acidity on growth that land would become available.

Scientists have found some varieties of wheat that have a trick to enable them to grow in acidic conditions. One of its membrane transporter called ALMT1 pumps out malate anion from its roots into the soil which traps the toxic form of aluminium.

Varieties of wheat without this natural transporter can be improved by breeding with varieties that do. But, crops such as barley, which have no comparable system of transporter in its membrane, need to be genetically modified to express the ALMT1 transporter protein. This allows for greatly increased yields even in acidic soils.

When salt is bad

Much of the world’s arable lands are becoming salty as a result of current irrigation practices. This happens when, on evaporation, salts in irrigation water are left behind inthe soil. Salts are toxic to plants and are severely limiting yields in over 30% of irrigated crops.

But there are membrane transporters which can stem the flow of salts into plants. These transporters, from the HKT family, rid the water of sodium before it is taken up by the plants. One example is that of durham wheat, which was modified to possess the HKT5 gene. The modification helped increase its yield in salty soils by 25%.

Fighting from the inside

gmbp69dh-1369048466Disease-causing micro-organisms, pathogens, manipulate a plant’s functioning and consume the fruit of its labour. Most crops have membrane transporters called SWEETs that move sucrose made by leaves from photosynthesis to other regions where it may be stored. Plant pathogens have evolved to manipulate SWEET genes so that sugars are moved to cells where they can feed on the goods.

Now scientists have found a way of disrupting this pathogen-induced manipulation by a method called RNA-silencing. These reduce, or sometimes eliminate, the pathogens’ ability to feed on the plants’ hard work, and in turn they help increase plant productivity.

Not all bad

Researchers have been quietly chugging away in labs working on making such radical improvements to crops. Breeding of plants, a form of untailored genetic modification that bestowed most of the benefits to agriculture a generation ago, is not able to keep up with the pace of change required for an ever-increasing demand for food. That is why it is important that we understand the science behind the process of tinkering with specific genes, before jumping on the “GM is bad” wagon.

Scientists are aware of the moral, ethical and environmental discussions surrounding production of GM food, and have been working carefully to address those issues. It is important that they continue to do so, while exploring the full potential of GM research to tackle the issue of hunger that looms large over the future of our species.

Whales committing suicide en masse… why?


On a recent weekend, whales stranded themselves on 4 different beaches around the world. Why do they do this?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm (actually, with Nick Piercey this time. We discuss whale strandings starting at 25 seconds into this clip:

[audio – Beached whales and tree diseases.mp3]

Whales and dolphins stranded on a beach

Stories about animals committing mass suicide are just not true – whether the animals in question be lemmings or whales. On of the central tenets of evolutionary biology is that the gene is selfish. Mass suicide is not a biological imperative – animals seek to reproduce and raise their young in all cases. While it is true that evolutionary theory talks of a ‘struggle for survival’ and ‘survival of the fittest’, there is no indication that whales that strand themselves are at less than peak fitness. So, although the reasons for whale strandings are unclear, the thing that you can be sure of is that whales are not ‘committing suicide.’

An engraving depicting three beached sperm whales that dates from 1577

Why then do these terrible tragedies occur? It is easy to point the finger and say that man is to blame. That might be partially true, and I will explain why in a bit, but there have been documented whale strandings since well before we filled the ocean with human technology that might confuse whales.

What is usually true is that it is the ‘toothed’ whales like pilot and sperm whales that beach themselves. These are the whales who hunt and eat meat like fish and seals. Larger whales such as Blue whales who filter zooplankton (the baleen whales) much less commonly beach themselves. The suggestion here is that it is the act of hunting in packs for animals that shelter in shallower waters that contributes to whale strandings. I hear you say, ‘But whales aren’t stupid!.’  Far from it, I think I made the point already that they wouldn’t have survived this long if something as common as a bit of shallow water was going to confuse them so much that they died.

Humans rescuing beached whales

My contention is that shallow waters have probably resulted in confused and stranded whales throughout evolutionary history but that it is exactly this that should have selected for whales that are exquisitely able to survive in these environments. Orcas have been observed to beach themselves as a hunting strategy. They catch seals on the beach and wait for the next wave to re-float them. This is a learned / evolved behaviour that not all whale species have acquired. Evolution is a slow process – especially for large, long-lived organisms that take years to produce successive generations. That’s why deer haven’t ‘evolved’ the ability to avoid cars. No predators with which they have evolved move as fast as a car, and cars have only been around for a few decades. I can imagine that if we kept driving cars at deer for many thousands of years that the ability to avoid them would evolve in deer.

OK, so whales have evolved to survive in shallow water environments and should be able to avoid being beached. It still happens – and it happens much more commonly on some beaches than on others. Scientists postulate that when pods of hunting whales stray into unfamiliar territory, they can become confused. This confusion is most prevalent in areas where the angle between beach and sea bottom is very shallow – it does not, therefore, reflect the sound that whales make as a navigation aid back to them and they remain unaware that they are dangerously close to the beach. This situation combined with strong current or tides is why whales end up high on beaches.

A Long-finned Pilot whale being rescued by crane

Whale rescue agencies have been set up around the world and are staffed, generally by volunteers, so that they can be mobilized quickly when whales beach or, even better, when a pod of whales gets close to a stranding site. Whales have not evolved to support their own weight for very long (I even find it a bit uncomfortable when I lay on the couch for more than a few hours watching TV!) and they quickly become very ill when beached. Even when rescued, they commonly remain confused and often re-beach themselves.

I mentioned at the top that human human activity might play a role in the increasing number of whale strandings that are being observed. In early September this year (2012), pilot whales beached themselves at 4 different locations around the world. That just seems like too much of a coincidence. One factor that seems to cause a great deal of confusion in whales is noise. And man do we fill the oceans with noise. Not only the din caused by ships engines but, increasingly, SONAR from military exercises. These sounds can be louder (240 decibels) than any sounds on land including jet engines and rock concerts. Think about whales who have evolved to navigate using sound – hear for yourselves the plaintive whale sounds that some species can detect from hundreds of miles away. The incidence of whales beaching increases after military exercises involving SONAR, and scientists have observed that many of the whales involved in these beachings have acoustically-induced hemorrhages around the ears.

We must consider the natural environment of these animals before we deploy things like load SONAR for military purposes – is it worth it?

A breaching humpback whale

While I’m on the topic of what we do to the whales environment, watch this amazing video of a humpback whale being rescued from a fishing net. I just about didn’t watch it because I was concentrating on whale strandings when I found it. It leaves me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, the majesty of the animal and it’s apparent cooperation with the humans. On the other, what if they hadn’t encountered the whale. It would just be a statistic on its way to extinction.

The rotten weather


The weather in England this summer mostly ‘sucks’. How about where you live?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk about the weather starting 50 seconds into this clip:

[audio – Weather and Unstealable objects.mp3]

More floods and droughts than ever before

Ugh… what a miserable spring and early summer it’s been in England. It has been raining virtually continuously for 3 months – ever since the day Southern England had water restrictions enforced due to the drought that lasted all winter. We grumble about the weather sometimes in England, and the place is never going to be as sunny as, say, Yuma (the sunniest place on Earth), but this has really gone too far.

Now some are asking, ‘is it possible to have a year with no summer at all?’ Well, let’s assume that when someone asks that question that they mean ‘without summer-like weather at all.’ It turns out that it’s not unprecedented. There was the famous summer of 1816 – the summer of ‘eighteen hundred and froze to death.’ It is believed that the rotten weather that year resulted from a combination of low solar activity with a volcanic winter event. The 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia filled the upper atmosphere with particles that had a reflective effect leading to a decrease in average temperature of LESS than 1 degree celsius.

Now a similar thing is happening. Worryingly though, not because of a volcano but because of us. This time the trend is going to be far more difficult to reverse. Humans burn too much petroleum and that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. All of the CO2 has the opposite effect from the volcanic ash cloud. Instead of reflecting heat, it acts like a big blanket around the Earth and keeps heat in. The small decrease in average temperature in 1816 had a profound effect on summer weather that resulted in crop failures and famine. Global warming which will cause average temperatures to increase by a few degrees in coming decades is going to mess up our weather jut as much as even the biggest volcano could.

Some, those of us in England for example, might have had cause to celebrate when we first heard of ‘global warming.’ Did it mean that within a few years we would be enjoying warmth and growing bananas and soaking up the rays? No, it more likely means that crazy weather patterns will become more commonplace. We swing from drought to flood in the UK and elsewhere on the planet some of the hottest, driest weather ever experienced is happening. Very slight increases in average annual temperature add energy to evaporation-driven processes resulting in abnormal storm systems for some and baking temperatures for others.

I’m afraid that global warming is a fact. Even those that were once critics of the idea are now seeing the truth (see: conversion of a climate-change skeptic). Our weather will always fluctuate so that we have cycles of cold years and hot years but the trend is for temperature to increase. What can we do about it? Some say that it is already too late, even if we stop burning fossil fuels today it will be impossible to reverse the trend – this is likened to the amount of time it takes to stop an oil tanker even if it is heading for a reef. Scientists call this inertia.  I say enough of the doom mongering. We’re late to recognize the problem but we are now starting to invest in alternate, cleaner energy programs.

Humans are supremely adaptable to changing environments and we will adapt as we ‘weather the storm.’ I just wish the sun would come out!

Bees – who needs them?


Without bees we’re doomed

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Bumblebees and panspermia.mp3]

Oh… I love pollen


Genetic modification – feeding the world


Genetically modified plants will help feed the world and devrease our dependence on pesticides

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Linnaeus and genetic modification.mp3]

Super crops


Cane toads – don’t lick ’em!


Cane toads

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm:

[audio – Flying cars and cane toads.mp3]

Cane toad – you little beauty