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.



[2] See: paragraph 3


[4] See: The Cell Membrane, the membrane is 4-10nm thick, so take the middle of this range of 7nm as an estimate

[5] 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.


[7] See: 8.1 Introduction


[9] See: Figure 1

[10] Paragraph 5

[11] See: Introduction; Knowledge of symbiosis cell biology can contribute to solutions being tested to help coral reefs survive

[12] See: abstract and introduction

[13] See: paragraph 7

[14] See: paragraph 2

[15] See: Abstract and Improving fuel molecules



[18] See: Lower crop yields and higher food prices



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