Menus Subscribe Search
hot-dna

(PHOTO: VIKTORIYA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Genetics of Global Warming

• October 14, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: VIKTORIYA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

As climates continue to change, so does the DNA of the species around us.

Two weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report taking stock of the physical basis of climate change. It examines the data on increasing greenhouse gases, rising temperatures, shrinking polar ice sheets, and climbing sea levels—and attempts to predict just how screwed we are under different future scenarios.

But what most people really care about are the biological consequences that accompany the physical changes to our global climate. What new threats will our crops face? Which forests will shrink, how many species will go extinct, and what can we do to stop ecosystems from deteriorating? If forecasting the response of the atmosphere, oceans, and ice sheets to increased greenhouse gases seems complex, predicting what biology will do in a warmer world is a nightmare. And yet if we’re going to retool our civilization to face the results of climate change, it’s critical that we develop the ability to anticipate how the world’s ecosystems might change.

Biology is highly non-linear, which means that the biological response to climate change is bound to have surprises in store.

The living world is already feeling the heat. Even within the last few decades, plants and animals have changed their behavior in response to earlier springs and later falls, and have shifted their ranges to higher latitudes and higher altitudes. Researchers have been tracking the movements of plants and animals, and they have repeatedly found that the recent shifts in species ranges largely follow changes in temperature. Large numbers of land and ocean species are expanding or retreating into new habitats, and, as a consequence, worlds are colliding. Scientists are struggling to work out what the results will be.

To predict what will happen when an ecosystem changes typically involves knowledge from a variety of scientific fields, ranging from paleobotany to network theory. Increasingly, scientists who study the world’s changing ecosystems are turning the field of genetics, gauging the present and future impact of global warming by studying DNA. Why DNA? By warming the world, we’re in essence conducting a global-scale experiment in evolution, causing massive genetic changes as species adapt, invade a new niche, or head toward extinction. Scientists are attempting to analyze what’s happening on a genetic level in order to predict a species’ future trajectory. This approach is the basis of a growing scientific field called landscape genetics, a field that promises a better understanding of what changes are in store for the biosphere.

An example of how this works is found in a study of alpine chipmunks in Yosemite National Park, published last year by a team of scientists at the University of California-Berkeley. Over the course of the past 100 years, alpine chipmunks in Yosemite have moved to higher altitudes as the average temperature of the park has increased by three degrees Celsius. As the chipmunks have moved upwards, their numbers have declined and their geographical range has shrunk. Are these chipmunks adapting to the new environment, or are they at risk for extinction?

To answer this question, the researchers compared the DNA of historical specimens collected in 1915-16, with that of today’s alpine chipmunks. What they found was “genetic erosion,” evidence that the alpine chipmunk population was fragmenting into isolated, genetically limited groups. As a population, the Yosemite alpine chipmunks are losing diversity at the level of their DNA. That diversity is the genetic resource they’ll need to adapt to a changed environment. They’re becoming more vulnerable to extinction by random extreme events like disease or an unusually dry year. The chipmunks’ poor prospects are evident in their genes.

On the other hand, DNA evidence suggests that the European wasp spider is evolving into a new form. Until the 1930s, European wasp spiders were primarily found in Mediterranean regions, and no further north than Austria and southern Germany. Over the last 80 years, these spiders have moved northwards, expanding into Poland, Scandinavia, and the Baltic region. Some of their movement was likely made possible by a warmer climate, but the spiders are not just following the warming trend. They’ve managed to colonize regions that are much colder than their original habitat.

Scientists at Germany’s Max Plank Institute found genetic evidence that these invasive spiders are hybridizing with cold-tolerant spiders, resulting in an invasive species that has gained the ability to survive freezing temperatures that would kill its more southern relatives. This is happening, the researchers argue, because populations of spiders that were once isolated can now interbreed with each other, creating new genetic forms that are highly capable of adapting to new environments. As habitats shift with global warming, previously separated populations will interact with increasing frequency, generating the genetic potential to spread and adapt in unexpected ways.

Biology is highly non-linear, which means that the biological response to climate change is bound to have surprises in store. Non-linear systems have tipping points, or, more technically, “critical transitions;” as one group of scientists put it, we “need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions.” Scientists hope that genetics will help us anticipate those transitions and either avoid them or manage the consequences of the new environment we’re creating.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.