Picture credits: CNN
COVID may have been terrible for humanity but was beneficial for our earth. Despite of countless calls to action from scientists and activists alike, the human race failed to make the strides necessary to stop global warming from progressing to irreversible levels, resulting in increased frequency of natural disasters and diseases. The earth was recovering (or should we say ‘was in remission’) during the pandemic which was observed by the improving air quality in cities, making some deniers realize the consequence of our exploitations. But the fight against global warming is not over- it will go on for decades to say the least.
Global warming refers to a steady increase in the overall temperature of our atmosphere over time mostly due to the greenhouse effect. Global warming has led to increased temperatures which continues to have massive implications on complex systems like our bodies and our immune system, to much simpler yet essential microorganisms. On the account of World Environment Day, we look at various effects of rising temperatures with respect to biological sciences.
Melting Snow & Warming Seas
A person who viewed the Arctic Circle 20 years ago on a trip to Alaska or from a satellite will have a very different view of it today. Permafrost, the ice that has been frozen for over thousands of years, now has a chance of melting and releasing every pathogenic bacteria, viruses and fungi it froze inside into our habitat. Beware: these pathogens may not be dead! Many bacteria, like Anthrax have pore forming ability using which they can remain dormant for long periods of time when they encounter unfavorable conditions (like extreme cold), only to be brought back to life by warmer temperature. This is not limited only to ancient bacteria, but also fungi and viruses.
Although a long shot, we don’t know what to expect from the melting permafrost. Melting of ice affects not only sea levels, but also how prone we are to novel infections that are unheard of.
Wonder to what extent your body would be able to combat foreign microbes? Click here!
Rising temperatures are also leading to warming up the ocean, whose ecology and habitat are much more important than what we assume. Phytoplankton, the marine algae that make up a large part of ocean microorganism carry out 50% of world’s carbon dioxide fixation and also produce half of world’s oxygen. They, along with many other oceanic microorganisms are involved in carbon and nitrogen fixation and make up the fundamental unit of the complex food web.
The ocean is affected not just by increasing temperatures, but also by rising carbon dioxide levels and increased acidification since industrialization. Due to increased CO2 levels, certain species can gain advantage over others, leading to changes in habitat and food cycle. Moreover, the nutrient intake and rising temperature has direct effect on how these microbes multiply and maintain their populations which in turn directly affects the amount of CO2, N2 and O2 produced and fixed. And this is just touching the tip of the iceberg of how adversely the ocean microbiome is affected.
Malaria, Dengue and Chikungunya are names that every person living in the tropical regions is familiar of. These deadly mosquito-borne diseases have plagued the tropical nations for a long time and now, with increase in temperatures, are threatening to invade temperate zones. Mosquitoes love warm temperatures and as the Northern hemisphere, including majority of Russia, North America and Europe get warmer, the mosquitoes could reproduce easily and transmit the deadly diseases much faster in those regions. This geographical spread due to increasing temperatures and humidity, goes beyond mosquitoes and into various water, food and air borne diseases too.
Unfortunately, viruses may not be the only kind of pathogens we would encounter in excess. Common people are not aware of the sheer magnitude of fungi that exist in harmony with us. This is partly because no matter how much a strain of fungi would love to colonize our skins, our body temperature (37 ℃) prevents them from doing so. This type of defense provided by virtue of our body temperature is called endothermy. But endothermy would be of no avail if these naïve fungi learn to overcome this barrier. Scientists predict that due to global warming, we are at high risk of fungal outbreaks since species of fungi could undergo mutations to adapt to increasing temperatures and, in the process, manage to bypass endothermy and emerge as novel pathogens too. And as they say, all fungi are edible, some fungi are only edible once. Eating a fungus won’t be necessary as they have spores which can do their job for them.
There already are fungi spores which can convert ants into zombie ants.
Rampant industrialization and combustion of fossil fuels has changed the air we breathe drastically, especially in heavily populated cities. There has been a steady increase in food allergies, hay fever and asthma in recent decades. Researchers have found that breathing air polluted with greenhouse gases like nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, tend to cause inflammation accompanied by increased permeability of the mucosal membranes that line our respiratory and digestive systems. This leads to the body taking up much more allergens, ultimately leading to allergic reactions that would otherwise have not been induced.
These respiratory problems are not only limited to oversensitive immune systems, but also the shifting seasons and increased CO2 and temperature levels that have prolonged pollen seasons and also increased pollen concentrations in the air.
A Need for Change
We seldom believe in things until we see them. One of the major arguments against Global Warming and Climate Change has been that there’s no “solid” proof that it is happening. But when we look carefully, no matter from what field – geography, ecology or biology – the signs are clear and becoming increasingly evident. The sooner we, the people, and our governments realize the massive implications that rising temperatures are going have on life on Earth, the quicker we can begin damage control, for we have already crossed many of the milestones that environmentalists had been warning us about.
One day of loving the environment won’t bring any change, but a little bit everyday could go a long way. And it takes only a google search to find ways in which you, as an individual can do your part!
Change can happen, all that is required is our willingness to change, if not for ourselves then for our children.
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- BBC – Earth – There are diseases hidden in ice, and they are waking up
- Arturo Casadevall. Climate change brings the specter of new infectious diseases. The Journal of Clinical Investigations. January 6, 2020. doi:10.1172/JCI135003
- Climate change microbiology — problems and perspectives | Nature Reviews Microbiology
Article author: Kevin Merchant. Kevin is a MS student at LMU Munich, Germany, who is passionate about Immunology and writing. He aims to simplify latest research so that it becomes accessible to all.
Editor: Sutonuka Bhar. Sutonuka is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida. Her work focuses on host immune responses against viruses and bacterial membrane vesicles.
Check out Antibuddies’ blog post “Global Warming Impact Not Only Our Environment, But Also Our Health”.Tweet