Molecular biologists vs. climate change.

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

All living things are made up of cells [1]. Cells are made from molecules such as fats, proteins and carbohydrates [2] which interact in incredibly complex ways [1]. Molecular biology is the scientific study of these molecules [3].

The components of cells are really small – for example, the width of the membrane (outer layer) of a cell is about 14,000 times thinner than a human hair [4,5]! Molecular biologists have to use lots of special equipment like microscopes in order to work with things that are so tiny [6]!

How can they fight climate change?

1) Saving coral reefs: it’s predicted that we will lose 99% of coral reef cover if global temperature rise reaches 2°C above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) [13,14]. At least 500 million people depend on coral reefs for their economic well-being, e.g. through fishing, tourism and protection from storms [12]. Molecular biologists are using breeding and genetic engineering to alter coral DNA in order to help them cope with rising temperatures, aiming to save coral reefs [11].

2) Making climate-resistant crops: higher temperatures and reduced rainfall caused by climate change are predicted to decrease crop yields in the absence of (or even with) dramatic improvements in crop breeds and farming practices [7,18,19]. The DNA of plants can be modified to make them better able to cope with change [7,8]. Rice can be made more resistant to drought by, for example, having more tightly rolled leaves, being shorter, and performing photosynthesis slower [9].

3) Using photosynthesis for power: some biologists are trying to genetically engineer algae to make fuels [10,15], whilst others are making artificial systems that mimic natural photosynthesis [10,16,17]. Though both face significant hurdles, with more research they could provide low-carbon sources of fuel or electricity [10,15,17].

There are as ever many more ways in which molecular biologists can fight climate change.

References

[1] https://www.britannica.com/science/cell-biology

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9879/ See: paragraph 3

[3] https://www.nature.com/subjects/molecular-biology

[4] https://www.britannica.com/science/cell-biology/Intercellular-communication#ref313686 See: The Cell Membrane, the membrane is 4-10nm thick, so take the middle of this range of 7nm as an estimate

[5] https://hypertextbook.com/facts/1999/BrianLey.shtml Take 100um as a rough estimate of human hair diameter, since there is variation in both actual and reported diameter. 100um=100,000nm. So number of cell membrane widths in a human hair is about: 100,000/7=14,285.7143. Round to 14,000.

[6] https://www.pomona.edu/academics/departments/molecular-biology/facilities

[7] https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=A7p9DwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA145&dq=drought+genetic+engineering+climate+change+&ots=zMI9wxrO_c&sig=lobDtNiJNRhNIanP6JwoX8qDTkE#v=onepage&q=drought%20genetic%20engineering%20climate%20change&f=false See: 8.1 Introduction

[8] https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-arplant-050213-040000?casa_token=YoE-7TD4-oIAAAAA:M8vgMV26xoSF_CAwPzscnr2yeKO6DKkrJhXj62xRD1CON-SUjJGjEoFbJH76AhcotTMikLLIiWU

[9] https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/20/14/3519 See: Figure 1

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4931561/ Paragraph 5

[11] https://academic.oup.com/icb/article/59/4/845/5509506 See: Introduction; Knowledge of symbiosis cell biology can contribute to solutions being tested to help coral reefs survive

[12] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212041617305466 See: abstract and introduction

[13] https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/ See: paragraph 7

[14] https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/chapter-1/ See: paragraph 2

[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3152439/ See: Abstract and Improving fuel molecules

[16] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ar900209b

[17] https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2019/cs/c8cs00897c

[18] https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/22787/9781464806735.pdf?sequence=13&isAllowed=y See: Lower crop yields and higher food prices

[19] https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/22787/9781464806735.pdf?sequence=13&isAllowed=y

[18] https://www.britannica.com/science/algae

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