How can the science of small things help with a challenge as big as climate change?

Climate change caused by human activity


Climate change caused by human activity is one of the greatest challenges our species has faced. The planet has a surface area of 510 million km2 and the challenge is enormous.

Despite the literal enormity, an important part of the solution lies in the study of biological agents and entities at the opposite end of the scale: genes, proteins, produce, and other biomolecules that seem infinitely small. The recent development of vaccines against COVID-19 is a great example of how understanding the structure of proteins and genes can have a global impact on society.

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), together with other international scientists, is publishing a white paper with multiple examples of how this argument is valid in the fight against climate change. All living systems share a common web of life called Planet Earth.

Global warming and methane emissions


Several countries have agreed to reduce methane emissions in the future. Global warming is caused by methane, a greenhouse gas.

A large part of the emissions come from modern agricultural practices used to meet the growing demand for meat and fish. Livestock produces large amounts of methane because of their metabolism and the way they digest food.

Molecular biology could help develop new cattle feeds that result in less methane production, without affecting the content of protein and other essential nutrients. Genetic research on the characteristics of cattle, the microbiome of cows, and the feeding of these animals can help in the development of these feeds.

In addition, molecular biology can also help in the development of meat alternatives by investigating the characteristics of plant foods to improve their harvest and taste.


Fourth-generation biofuels


Fossil fuels include coal, oil, and natural gas. Synthetic biology and systems biology are leading the way to the fourth generation of fuels. Microorganism and agricultural crop engineering could serve as a major source of fuels.

We need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce gas emissions. The study of the processes involved in carbon reduction is one of the main contributions of the life sciences.

Even though trees and plants are efficient at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and oceans, there are other species of plants that are even more efficient. These organisms can be used in large-scale processes to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Ecosystems and biodiversity loss


The Earth is experiencing the sixth large-scale extinction, and the cause is human action on the environment. Humans have caused profound changes in the distribution of ecosystems and organisms such as microorganisms, animals, and plants, as well as in the way they interact with each other.

The latest IPCC report states that human activity has altered the planet's climate irreversibly for the next hundreds of thousands of years. Molecular biology contributes knowledge in this area of climate change with its studies of how different species of living things adapt, thrive, or decline when the environment changes.

For example, the in-depth study of species that are resistant to certain environmental aggressors and the study of sentinel species that indicate changes in the environment and the molecular mechanisms that underpin their responses can be applied to living things that are more sensitive to changes in the environment.

These studies would help the scientific community to understand the effects of changes in nature and to establish a warning system to avoid irreversible changes in certain ecosystems at risk.

Anthropogenic pollution


Plastic pollution and chemicals are included in this type of pollution. Many pollutants created by humans are accumulating in the environment and reaching the food chain, causing harm to both the planet and human beings. It is necessary to determine how these residues interact with different types of life at different levels.

There are solutions to help clean up our environment. Scientists are studying the metabolism of drugs and plastic in the environment. New chemical analyses would allow experts to evaluate chemical libraries of pesticides, antibiotics, natural compounds, and steroids, as well as their metabolites in the context of environmental health and microbial systems.

To achieve the goals described in the EMBL white paper requires a large collective effort. The scientific community must become even more interdisciplinary, more diverse, collaborative, and informative.

Climatologists, ecologists, physicists, molecular biologists, and other researchers must be supported to work together.

Greater investment by governments and policymakers is needed to accelerate basic science results to better understand the planet we live on to find solutions to the climate crisis and initiate ecological recovery.



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