These technologies may help more animals and plants survive climate change
This article originally appeared inOne 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.
Along the west coast of South Florida and the Keys, Florida Bay is a nursery for young Caribbean spiny lobsters, a favorite local delicacy. Growing up in small shallow basins, they are especially vulnerable to warmer, more saline water. Climate change has brought tidal floods, bleached coral reefs and toxic algal blooms to the state, and since the 1990s, the population of the Caribbean spiny lobster has dropped some 20 percent, diminishing an important food for snapper, grouper, and herons, as well as people. In 1999, marine ecologist Donald Behringer discovered the first known virus among lobsters, Panulirus argus virus—about a quarter of juveniles die from it before they mature.
“When the water is warm PaV1 progresses much more quickly,” says Behringer, who is based at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Caribbean spiny lobsters are only one example of many species that are struggling in the era of climate change, both at sea and on land. As the oceans heat up, absorbing greenhouse gases and growing more acidic, marine diseases are emerging at an accelerated rate. Marine creatures are migrating to new places, and carrying pathogens with them. The latest grim report in the journal Science, states that if global warming continues at the current rate, the extinction of marine species will rival the Permian–Triassic extinction, sometimes called the “Great Dying,” when volcanoes poisoned the air and wiped out as much as 90 percent of all marine life 252 million years ago.
Similarly, on land, climate change has exposed wildlife, trees and crops to new or more virulent pathogens. Warming environments allow fungi, bacteria, viruses and infectious worms to proliferate in new species and locations or become more virulent. One paper modeling records of nearly 1,400 wildlife species projects that parasites will double by 2070 in the far north and in high-altitude places. Right now, we are seeing the effects most clearly on the fringes—along the coasts, up north and high in the mountains—but as the climate continues changing, the ripples will reach everywhere.
Few species are spared
On the Hawaiian Islands, mosquitoes are killing more songbirds. The dusky gray akikiki of Kauai and the chartreuse-yellow kiwikiu of Maui could vanish in two years, under assault from mosquitoes bearing avian malaria, according to a University of Hawaiʻi 2022 report. Previously, the birds could escape infection by roosting high in the cold mountains, where the pests couldn’t thrive, but climate change expanded the range of the mosquito and narrowed theirs.
Likewise, as more midge larvae survive over warm winters and breed better during drier summers, they bite more white-tailed deer, spreading often-fatal epizootic hemorrhagic disease. Especially in northern regions of the globe, climate change brings the threat of midges carrying blue tongue disease, a virus, to sheep and other animals. Tick-borne diseases like encephalitis and Lyme disease may become a greater threat to animals and perhaps humans.
"If you put all your eggs in one basket and then a pest comes a long, then you are more vulnerable to those risks," says Mehroad Ehsani, managing director of the food initiative in Africa for the Rockefeller Foundation. "Research is needed on resilient, climate smart, regenerative agriculture."
In the “thermal mismatch” theory of wildlife disease, cold-adapted species are at greater risk when their habitats warm, and warm-adapted species suffer when their habitats cool. Mammals can adjust their body temperature to adapt to some extent. Amphibians, fish and insects that cannot regulate body temperatures may be at greater risk. Many scientists see amphibians, especially, as canaries in the coalmine, signaling toxicity.
Early melting ice can foster disease. Climate models predict that the spring thaw will come ever-earlier in the lakes of the French Pyrenees, for instance, which traditionally stayed frozen for up to half the year. The tadpoles of the midwife toad live under the ice, where they are often infected with amphibian chytrid fungus. When a seven-year study tracked the virus in three species of amphibians in Pyrenees’s Lac Arlet, the research team found that, the earlier the spring thaw arrived, the more infection rates rose in common toads— , while remaining high among the midwife toads. But the team made another sad discovery: with early thaws, the common frog, which was thought to be free of the disease in Europe, also became infected with the fungus and died in large numbers.
Changing habitats affect animal behavior. Normally, spiny lobsters rely on chemical cues to avoid predators and sick lobsters. New conditions may be hampering their ability to “social distance”—which may help PaV1 spread, Behringer’s research suggests. Migration brings other risks. In April 2022, an international team led by scientists at Georgetown University announced the first comprehensive overview, published in the journal Nature, of how wild mammals under pressure from a changing climate may mingle with new populations and species—giving viruses a deadly opportunity to jump between hosts. Droughts, for example, will push animals to congregate at the few places where water remains.
Plants face threats also. At the timberline of the cold, windy, snowy mountains of the U.S. west, whitebark pine forests are facing a double threat, from white pine blister rust, a fungal disease, and multiplying pine beetles. “If we do nothing, we will lose the species,” says Robert Keane, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, based in Missoula, Montana. That would be a huge shift, he explains: “It’s a keystone species. There are over 110 animals that depend on it, many insects, and hundreds of plants.” In the past, beetle larvae would take two years to complete their lifecycle, and many died in frost. “With climate change, we're seeing more and more beetles survive, and sometimes the beetle can complete its lifecycle in one year,” he says.
Quintessential crops are under threat too
As some pathogens move north and new ones develop, they pose novel threats to the crops humans depend upon. This is already happening to wheat, coffee, bananas and maize.
Breeding against wheat stem rust, a fungus long linked to famine, was a key success in the mid-20th century Green Revolution, which brought higher yields around the world. In 2013, wheat stem rust reemerged in Germany after decades of absence. It ravaged both bread and durum wheat in Sicily in 2016 and has spread as far as England and Ireland. Wheat blast disease, caused by a different fungus, appeared in Bangladesh in 2016, and spread to India, the world’s second largest producer of wheat.
Insects, moths, worms, and coffee leaf rust—a fungus now found in all coffee-growing countries—threaten the livelihoods of millions of people who grow coffee, as well as everybody’s cup of joe. More heat, more intense rain, and higher humidity have allowed coffee leaf rust to cycle more rapidly. It has grown exponentially, overcoming the agricultural chemicals that once kept it under control.
To identify new diseases and fine-tune crops for resistance, scientists are increasingly relying on genomic tools.
Tar spot, a fungus native to Latin America that can cut corn production in half, has emerged in highland areas of Central Mexico and parts of the U.S.. Meanwhile, maize lethal necrosis disease has spread to multiple countries in Africa, notes Mehrdad Ehsani, Managing Director for the Food Initiative in Africa of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Cavendish banana, which most people eat today, was bred to be resistant to the fungus Panama 1. Now a new fungus, Panama 4, has emerged on every continent–including areas of Latin America that rely on the Cavendish for their income, reported a recent story in the Guardian. New threats are poised to emerge. Potato growers in the Andes Mountains have been shielded from disease because of colder weather at high altitude, but temperature fluxes and warming weather are expected to make this crop vulnerable to potato blight, found plant pathologist Erica Goss, at the Emerging Pathogens Institute.
Science seeks solutions
To protect food supplies in the era of climate change, scientists are calling for integrated global surveillance systems for crop disease outbreaks. “You can imagine that a new crop variety that is drought-tolerant could be susceptible to a pathogen that previous varieties had some resistance against,” Goss says. “Or a country suffers from a calamitous weather event, has to import seed from another country, and that seed is contaminated with a new pathogen or more virulent strain of an existing pathogen.” Researchers at the John Innes Center in Norwich and Aarhus University in Denmark have established ways to monitor wheat rust, for example.
Better data is essential, for both plants and animals. Historically, models of climate change predicted effects on plant pathogens based on mean temperatures, and scientists tracked plant responses to constant temperatures, explains Goss. “There is a need for more realistic tests of the effects of changing temperatures, particularly changes in daily high and low temperatures on pathogens,” she says.
To identify new diseases and fine-tune crops for resistance, scientists are increasingly relying on genomic tools. Goss suggests factoring the impact of climate change into those tools. Genomic efforts to select soft red winter wheat that is resistant to Fusarium head blight (FHB), a fungus that plagues farmers in the Southeastern U.S., have had early success. But temperature changes introduce a new factor.
A fundamental solution would be to bring back diversification in farming, says Ehsani. Thousands of plant species are edible, yet we rely on a handful. Wild relatives of domesticated crops are a store of possibly useful genes that may confer resistance to disease. The same is true for livestock. “If you put all your eggs in one basket and then a pest comes along, then you are more vulnerable to those risks. Research is needed on resilient, climate smart, regenerative agriculture,” Ehsani says.
Jonathan Sleeman, director of the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, has called for data on wildlife health to be systematically collected and integrated with climate and other variables because more comprehensive data will result in better preventive action. “We have focused on detecting diseases,” he says, but a more holistic strategy would apply human public health concepts to assuring animal wellbeing. (For example, one study asked experts to draw a diagram of relationships of all the factors affecting the health of a particular group of caribou.) We must not take the health of plants and animals for granted, because their vulnerability inevitably affects us too, Sleeman says. “We need to improve the resilience of wildlife populations so they can withstand the impact of climate change.”
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”