Using Biomedical Research to Mitigate the Effects of Climate Change
Climate change is having many clear, detrimental effects: from more-intense hurricanes, widely rampaging wildfires, and record-breaking temperatures to drought, famine, and emerging infectious disease.
But, what effects do we not yet see? What are climate change’s longer term biological effects and how will it affect overall human health in coming decades?
“Huge segments of the world’s population will be at risk if global society cannot learn to anticipate and mitigate climate change’s multifaceted effects on human health,” says Whitehead Institute President and Director Ruth Lehmann. “Unfortunately science is currently hampered by limited knowledge about how increased temperature affects biology and by a lack of biotechnological tools to address detrimental effects. For that reason, Whitehead Institute is helping create the fundamental scientific knowledge and tools necessary to protect human health in the face of this swiftly emerging challenge.”
In 2021, Lehmann launched the Whitehead Initiative on Biology, Health, and Climate Change (WIBHC), a multidisciplinary program that explores the biological and health effects of climate change and that builds the foundations for biomedical and biotech interventions that could help prevent, mitigate, or treat detrimental impacts on human health.
“For more than 40 years, Whitehead Institute has been dedicated to making paradigm-shifting insights into the fundamental principles of life,” reflects Lehmann, who is also professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Our climate change work is a natural and important extension of our mission to forge new frontiers in science, uncovering insights today that unlock the potential of tomorrow.”
The WIBHC is pursuing climate change-related investigations in three realms. Projects focusing on Cellular Processes in Extreme Conditions seek to better understand how mammalian cells and organisms adapt to dramatic shifts in temperature and the availability of food and water. Studies addressing Infectious Disease and Climate Change aim to help mitigate the risk to humans from emerging viruses and spreading parasitic infections, and work in Plant Biology aims to create the knowledge and tools necessary to grow climate change-resistant crops and plants capable of helping reduce atmospheric carbon.
“As traumatic as the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic experience has been, climate change presents an even more significant threat to human society,” Lehmann observes. “Yet the speed and effectiveness of the bioscience research enterprise’s response to COVID-19 is evidence of both the practical, long-term importance of discovery research and of biomedical science’s collective ability to quickly uncover, translate, and apply new knowledge.
“Overcoming the threats presented by climate change will require a similar but vastly larger collaboration,” she says. “We are determined that Whitehead Institute will play a meaningful role in that collaborative effort as both a catalyst for pioneering projects and a partner in translating our discoveries. We will create and disseminate new knowledge and innovative tools, helping researchers across the globe to drive their work forward.”
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