May 22 is the annual International Day for Biological Diversity, which seeks to maintain and improve the diversity of plant, animal, and microorganism species across our planet through the protection and maintenance of their native ecosystems. Given the human dependence on biodiversity to sustain us, particularly in our food supply, this is an important issue to raise awareness for and to enact policies and mechanisms to provide food security and prevent famine and disease. With plants being the backbone of nearly every ecosystem and food chain on Earth, many scientists are considering plant biology to address these major global issues, especially as biodiversity continues to be threatened by global climate change and other human interventions.
There is a famous (or is it infamous?) doomsday seed vault somewhere in Svalbard, a set of islands north of Norway, where nearly a million different seed samples are stored in the event of global catastrophe and agriculture has to be started from scratch. The problem, as you may have experienced yourself wherever you live, is that rising temperatures and other ramifications of climate change are going to threaten not just this seed vault, but also the crops that humans regularly tend to in more temperate areas of the world, which will affect things like crop yield and durability.
As written previously, plants are not just food sources, but also valuable natural remedies against human diseases. Through the wonders of the circle of life, plant material can also be used to cultivate and nurture the next generation of crops. Plant fibers are also part of the paper we use for books, notes, and packaging materials, as well as many clothes that we wear, not to mention the whole providing oxygen thing so that we don't all suffocate to death. From a purely self-serving point of view, it makes sense for everyone to protect plant diversity to protect ourselves and our interests.
My Pubmed Central search for "sustainable agriculture" returned over 19,000 results over just the past year alone, as scientists around the world are dedicated to searching for new ways to promote more Earth-friendly and efficient technologies to improve crop yield and plant resistance to disease and their environments. I note a great many of these studies are in fertile lands such as Brazil and China, and providing better strategies to not only grow more crops, but to make those crops more nutritious and sustainable, is a noble endeavor that is sorely needed as the human population races past eight billion individuals. The improvement in sustainable agriculture can be coupled with a gradual elimination of fossil fuels, water conservation, and hopefully a stop to, or even a reversal of, the climate changes we have experienced in recent years.
Using Biochemistry to Understand Plant Biology
As an alumnus of the University of Chicago, I regularly receive issues of the Biological Science Division's Medicine on the Midway magazine, which highlights the accomplishments of the talented people associated with the program, including my former professors and classmates. Recently, Dr. Chuan He, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, was awarded the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, in recognition of his impactful work on RNA modifications including reversible RNA methylation and its control on gene expression. Dr. He is also a member of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and I knew about him tangentially because he is affiliated with the university's Cancer Research Center and I was a part of the cancer biology program. The work on RNA modifications originally stemmed from a desire to understand how dysregulation of RNA processing could lead to human diseases, and the advances made by Dr. He and others have become indispensable for diagnostic and prognostic purposes as well as paving the way to setting up new therapies.
In May's issue of Medicine on the Midway, there was a set of stories on how University of Chicago Medicine researchers were working on improving human health in the context of the environment, given the literal (mostly carbon dioxide and methane, I suppose) cloud of climate change hanging over our heads. Dr. He used his research on RNA modifications in plants to show that he could markedly increase the yield of rice in both the laboratory and in the field, which is monumental because rice is the backbone of many diets of various global cultures, and not just the Asian ones. Along with the higher yields, the modified rice plants were more drought resistant and had more efficient photosynthesis, and these results were similar in modified potato plants. There is of course a stigma around genetically modified organisms in foods, but if done responsibly, genetic engineering could help alleviate world hunger while we solve myriad other human problems.
One Challenge at a Time
Individually, we can all improve recycling and reuse programs, switch to electric vehicles, and reduce food waste, but science and society is making incremental steps to addressing the food supply issues brought on by climate change. With climate change comes extreme weather that ranges from the torrential rains and flooding that plagues parts of the country, including California, most recently, while other regions are affected by droughts and severe storms including tornadoes and hurricanes. This is getting to be an all-hands-on-deck scenario where everyone, from individual citizens to research scientists to government officials, will need to band together and ensure the safety of the plants and crops, the lifeline of the entire planet. With dedicated people like Dr. He, this is a challenge that we can certainly face and overcome together and preserve the biodiversity of our beautiful world.