Staying well in the 21st century is like playing a game of chess
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are increasing vulnerabilities to infectious diseases by land and by sea. The magazine probes how scientists are making progress with leaders in other fields toward solutions that embrace diverse perspectives and the interconnectedness of all lifeforms and the planet.
On July 30, 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report comparing data on the control of infectious disease from the beginning of the 20th century to the end. The data showed that deaths from infectious diseases declined markedly. In the early 1900s, pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases were the three leading killers, accounting for one-third of total deaths in the U.S.—with 40 percent being children under five.
Mass vaccinations, the discovery of antibiotics and overall sanitation and hygiene measures eventually eradicated smallpox, beat down polio, cured cholera, nearly rid the world of tuberculosis and extended the U.S. life expectancy by 25 years. By 1997, there was a shift in population health in the U.S. such that cancer, diabetes and heart disease were now the leading causes of death.The control of infectious diseases is considered to be one of the “10 Great Public Health Achievements.” Yet on the brink of the 21st century, new trouble was already brewing. Hospitals were seeing periodic cases of antibiotic-resistant infections. Novel viruses, or those that previously didn’t afflict humans, began to emerge, causing outbreaks of West Nile, SARS, MERS or swine flu.
In the years that followed, tuberculosis made a comeback, at least in certain parts of the world. What we didn’t take into account was the very concept of evolution: as we built better protections, our enemies eventually boosted their attacking prowess, so soon enough we found ourselves on the defensive once again.
At the same time, new, previously unknown or extremely rare disorders began to rise, such as autoimmune or genetic conditions. Two decades later, scientists began thinking about health differently—not as a static achievement guaranteed to last, but as something dynamic and constantly changing—and sometimes, for the worse.
What emerged since then is a different paradigm that makes our interactions with the microbial world more like a biological chess match, says Victoria McGovern, a biochemist and program officer for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Infectious Disease and Population Sciences Program. In this chess game, humans may make a clever strategic move, which could involve creating a new vaccine or a potent antibiotic, but that advantage is fleeting. At some point, the organisms we are up against could respond with a move of their own—such as developing resistance to medication or genetic mutations that attack our bodies. Simply eradicating the “opponent,” or the pathogenic microbes, as efficiently as possible isn’t enough to keep humans healthy long-term.
Instead, scientists should focus on studying the complexity of interactions between humans and their pathogens. “We need to better understand the lifestyles of things that afflict us,” McGovern says. “The solutions are going to be in understanding various parts of their biology so we can influence how they behave around our systems.”
Genetics and cell biology, combined with imaging techniques that allow one to see tissues and individual cells in actions, will enable scientists to define and quantify what it means to be healthy at the molecular level.
What is being proposed will require a pivot to basic biology and other disciplines that have suffered from lack of research funding in recent years. Yet, according to McGovern, the research teams of funded proposals are answering bigger questions. “We look for people exploring questions about hosts and pathogens, and what happens when they touch, but we’re also looking for people with big ideas,” she says. For example, if one specific infection causes a chain of pathological events in the body, can other infections cause them too? And if we find a way to break that chain for one pathogen, can we play the same trick on another? “We really want to see people thinking of not just one experiment but about big implications of their work,” McGovern says.
Jonah Cool, a cell biologist, geneticist and science officer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, says that it’s necessary to define what constitutes a healthy organism and how it overcomes infections or environmental assaults, such as pollution from forest fires or toxins from industrial smokestacks. An organism that catches a disease isn’t necessarily an unhealthy one, as long as it fights it off successfully—an ability that arises from the complex interplay of its genes, the immune system, age, stress levels and other factors. Modern science allows many of these factors to be measured, recorded and compared. “We need a data-driven, deep-phenotyping approach to defining healthy biological systems and their responses to insults—which can be infectious disease or environmental exposures—and their ability to navigate their way through that space,” Cool says.
Genetics and cell biology, combined with imaging techniques that allow one to see tissues and individual cells in actions, will enable scientists to define and quantify what it means to be healthy at the molecular level. “As a geneticist and cell biologist, I believe in all these molecular underpinnings and how they arise in phenotypic differences in cells, genes, proteins—and how their combinations form complex cellular states,” Cool says.
Julie Graves, a physician, public health consultant, former adjunct professor of management, policy and community health at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, stresses the necessity of nutritious diets. According to the Rockefeller Food Initiative, “poor diet is the leading risk factor for disease, disability and premature death in the majority of countries around the world.” Adequate nutrition is critical for maintaining human health and life. Yet, Western diets are often low in essential nutrients, high in calories and heavy on processed foods. Overconsumption of these foods has contributed to high rates of obesity and chronic disease in the U.S. In fact, more than half of American adults have at least one chronic disease, and 27 percent have more than one—which increases vulnerability to COVID-19 infections, according to the 2018 National Health Interview Survey.
Further, the contamination of our food supply with various agricultural and industrial toxins—petrochemicals, pesticides, PFAS and others—has implications for morbidity, mortality, and overall quality of life. “These chemicals are insidiously in everything, including our bodies,” Graves says—and they are interfering with our normal biological functions. “We need to stop how we manufacture food,” she adds, and rid our sustenance of these contaminants.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, factory farms result in nearly 40 percent of emissions of methane. Concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs may serve as breeding grounds for pandemics, scientists warn, so humans should research better ways to raise and treat livestock. Diego Rose, a professor of food and nutrition policy at Tulane University School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine, and his colleagues found that “20 percent of Americans’ diets account for about 45 percent of the environmental impacts [that come from food].” A subsequent study explored the impacts of specific foods and found that substituting beef for chicken lowers an individual’s carbon footprint by nearly 50 percent, with water usage decreased by 30 percent. Notably, however, eating too much red meat has been associated with a variety of illnesses.
In some communities, the option to swap food types is limited or impossible. For example, “many populations live in relative food deserts where there’s not a local grocery store that has any fresh produce,” says Louis Muglia, the president and CEO of Burroughs Wellcome. Individuals in these communities suffer from an insufficient intake of beneficial macronutrients, and they’re “probably being exposed to phenols and other toxins that are in the packaging.” An equitable, sustainable and nutritious food supply will be vital to humanity’s wellbeing in the era of climate change, unpredictable weather and spillover events.
A recent report by See Change Institute and the Climate Mental Health Network showed that people who are experiencing socioeconomic inequalities, including many people of color, contribute the least to climate change, yet they are impacted the most. For example, people in low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to vehicle emissions, Muglia says. Through its Climate Change and Human Health Seed Grants program, Burroughs Wellcome funds research that aims to understand how various factors related to climate change and environmental chemicals contribute to premature births, associated with health vulnerabilities over the course of a person’s life—and map such hot spots.
“It’s very complex, the combinations of socio-economic environment, race, ethnicity and environmental exposure, whether that’s heat or toxic chemicals,” Muglia explains. “Disentangling those things really requires a very sophisticated, multidisciplinary team. That’s what we’ve put together to describe where these hotspots are and see how they correlate with different toxin exposure levels.”
In addition to mapping the risks, researchers are developing novel therapeutics that will be crucial to our armor arsenal, but we will have to be smarter at designing and using them. We will need more potent, better-working monoclonal antibodies. Instead of directly attacking a pathogen, we may have to learn to stimulate the immune system—training it to fight the disease-causing microbes on its own. And rather than indiscriminately killing all bacteria with broad-scope drugs, we would need more targeted medications. “Instead of wiping out the entire gut flora, we will need to come up with ways that kill harmful bacteria but not healthy ones,” Graves says. Training our immune systems to recognize and react to pathogens by way of vaccination will keep us ahead of our biological opponents, too. “Continued development of vaccines against infectious diseases is critical,” says Graves.With all of the unpredictable events that lie ahead, it is difficult to foresee what achievements in public health will be reported at the end of the 21st century. Yet, technological advances, better modeling and pursuing bigger questions in science, along with education and working closely with communities will help overcome the challenges. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative displays an optimistic message on its website: “Is it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of this century? We think so.” Cool shares the view of his employer—and believes that science can get us there. Just give it some time and a chance. “It’s a big, bold statement,” he says, “but the end of the century is a long way away.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”