Average and variation (±s.e.) with time (1842–1998) in estimated protein concentration (a) and carbon to nitrogen ratio (b) for historical samples from floral (anthers and pollen) tissue for S. canadensis from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. Atmospheric CO2 (Ca) for a given set of sample dates were obtained prior to 1960 from [49]; after 1960 using http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/. Each point is the average of approximately 6–40 samples by year from different biogeographic regions within North America. Graphic: Ziska, et al., 2016 / Proceedings of the Royal Society B

By Helena Bottemiller Evich
13 September 2017

(Politico) – Irakli Loladze is a mathematician by training, but he was in a biology lab when he encountered the puzzle that would change his life. It was in 1998, and Loladze was studying for his Ph.D. at Arizona State University. Against a backdrop of glass containers glowing with bright green algae, a biologist told Loladze and a half-dozen other graduate students that scientists had discovered something mysterious about zooplankton.

Zooplankton are microscopic animals that float in the world’s oceans and lakes, and for food they rely on algae, which are essentially tiny plants. Scientists found that they could make algae grow faster by shining more light onto them—increasing the food supply for the zooplankton, which should have flourished. But it didn’t work out that way. When the researchers shined more light on the algae, the algae grew faster, and the tiny animals had lots and lots to eat—but at a certain point they started struggling to survive. This was a paradox. More food should lead to more growth. How could more algae be a problem?

Loladze was technically in the math department, but he loved biology and couldn’t stop thinking about this. The biologists had an idea of what was going on: The increased light was making the algae grow faster, but they ended up containing fewer of the nutrients the zooplankton needed to thrive. By speeding up their growth, the researchers had essentially turned the algae into junk food. The zooplankton had plenty to eat, but their food was less nutritious, and so they were starving.

Loladze used his math training to help measure and explain the algae-zooplankton dynamic. He and his colleagues devised a model that captured the relationship between a food source and a grazer that depends on the food. They published that first paper in 2000. But Loladze was also captivated by a much larger question raised by the experiment: Just how far this problem might extend.

“What struck me is that its application is wider,” Loladze recalled in an interview. Could the same problem affect grass and cows? What about rice and people? “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said.

In the outside world, the problem isn’t that plants are suddenly getting more light: It’s that for years, they’ve been getting more carbon dioxide. Plants rely on both light and carbon dioxide to grow. If shining more light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae—junk-food algae whose ratio of sugar to nutrients was out of whack—then it seemed logical to assume that ramping up carbon dioxide might do the same. And it could also be playing out in plants all over the planet. What might that mean for the plants that people eat?

Mathematician Irakli Loladze tosses sugar over vegetables outside his home in Lincoln Nebraska, to illustrate how the sugar content of the plants we eat is increasing as a result of rising carbon dioxide levels. Loladze was the first scientist to publish research connecting rising CO2 and changes in plant quality to human nutrition. Photo: Geoff Johnson / POLITICO

What Loladze found is that scientists simply didn’t know. It was already well documented that CO2levels were rising in the atmosphere, but he was astonished at how little research had been done on how it affected the quality of the plants we eat. For the next 17 years, as he pursued his math career, Loladze scoured the scientific literature for any studies and data he could find. The results, as he collected them, all seemed to point in the same direction: The junk-food effect he had learned about in that Arizona lab also appeared to be occurring in fields and forests around the world. “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Loladze said. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.”

He published those findings just a few years ago, adding to the concerns of a small but increasingly worried group of researchers who are raising unsettling questions about the future of our food supply. Could carbon dioxide have an effect on human health we haven’t accounted for yet? The answer appears to be yes—and along the way, it has steered Loladze and other scientists, directly into some of the thorniest questions in their profession, including just how hard it is to do research in a field that doesn’t quite exist yet. [more]

The great nutrient collapse


ABSTRACT: Mineral malnutrition stemming from undiversified plant-based diets is a top global challenge. In C3 plants (e.g., rice, wheat), elevated concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (eCO2) reduce protein and nitrogen concentrations, and can increase the total non-structural carbohydrates (TNC; mainly starch, sugars). However, contradictory findings have obscured the effect of eCO2 on the ionome—the mineral and trace-element composition—of plants. Consequently, CO2-induced shifts in plant quality have been ignored in the estimation of the impact of global change on humans. This study shows that eCO2 reduces the overall mineral concentrations (−8%, 95% confidence interval: −9.1 to −6.9, p<0.00001) and increases TNC:minerals > carbon:minerals in C3 plants. The meta-analysis of 7761 observations, including 2264 observations at state of the art FACE centers, covers 130 species/cultivars. The attained statistical power reveals that the shift is systemic and global. Its potential to exacerbate the prevalence of ‘hidden hunger’ and obesity is discussed.

Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO2 depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition


ABSTRACT: Dietary deficiencies of zinc and iron are a substantial global public health problem. An estimated two billion people suffer these deficiencies1, causing a loss of 63 million life-years annually2, 3. Most of these people depend on C3 grains and legumes as their primary dietary source of zinc and iron. Here we report that C3 grains and legumes have lower concentrations of zinc and iron when grown under field conditions at the elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration predicted for the middle of this century. C3 crops other than legumes also have lower concentrations of protein, whereas C4 crops seem to be less affected. Differences between cultivars of a single crop suggest that breeding for decreased sensitivity to atmospheric CO2 concentration could partly address these new challenges to global health.

Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition


ABSTRACT: At present, there is substantive evidence that the nutritional content of agriculturally important food crops will decrease in response to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, Ca. However, whether Ca-induced declines in nutritional quality are also occurring for pollinator food sources is unknown. Flowering late in the season, goldenrod (Solidago spp.) pollen is a widely available autumnal food source commonly acknowledged by apiarists to be essential to native bee (e.g. Bombus spp.) and honeybee (Apis mellifera) health and winter survival. Using floral collections obtained from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, we quantified Ca-induced temporal changes in pollen protein concentration of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), the most widespread Solidago taxon, from hundreds of samples collected throughout the USA and southern Canada over the period 1842–2014 (i.e. a Ca from approx. 280 to 398 ppm). In addition, we conducted a 2 year in situ trial of S. canadensis populations grown along a continuous Ca gradient from approximately 280 to 500 ppm. The historical data indicated a strong significant correlation between recent increases in Ca and reductions in pollen protein concentration (r2 = 0.81). Experimental data confirmed this decrease in pollen protein concentration, and indicated that it would be ongoing as Ca continues to rise in the near term, i.e. to 500 ppm (r2 = 0.88). While additional data are needed to quantify the subsequent effects of reduced protein concentration for Canada goldenrod on bee health and population stability, these results are the first to indicate that increasing Ca can reduce protein content of a floral pollen source widely used by North American bees.

Rising atmospheric CO2 is reducing the protein concentration of a floral pollen source essential for North American bees

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