Predicting climate crises

As the global climate crisis intensifies, it becomes more imperative to predict when specific climate-related disasters will take place. A recent paper describes UC Santa Barbara climate scientist and researcher Chris Funk’s work in predicting when these disasters will take place with a focus on the Eastern Horn of Africa. Droughts are increasingly common in this region and have led to massive ecological instability and food insecurity. Funk’s Climate Hazards Center (CHC), created and managed under his supervision, has been able to coordinate with local government and foreign aid agencies to ensure that millions of dollars in food and medical aid are sent to affected populations. By studying particular weather patterns in the region, the CHC are able to discern when decreased moisture will affect Eastern Africa through the initiation of these devastating droughts and have been able to respond appropriately and efficiently. Funk states that while crises such as droughts and floods still occur, their effects can be mitigated via usage of his prediction model. “Flooding still happens, drought still happens, people still get hurt, but we can try to reduce the harm,” he said. The paper further details CHC’s collaboration with Plant Village, an activist group working on-site with Kenyan farmers to create drought-resistant crops. Funk’s current goal is to create a response doctrine for Eastern Africa when it comes to droughts and other climate-related disasters by being able to understand how exactly they originate and how best to respond to them. While these efforts may initially be costly, Funk insists they are a superior long-term investment to conventional humanitarian aid programs. 

Fundamental fungi

A recent study by UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Chemical Engineering revealed that the RNA content of fungi is in fact crucial for several advancements in biotechnology. Unfortunately, most studies attempting to harness these abilities have only extracted fungal genome sequences from one specific fungal growth. This study, however, attempts to harvest RNA from two different growth types, monoculture and methanogen co-culture. Initial findings yielded that these RNA structures could become vital in designing bioreactors for environmental purposes (such as the preservation of natural flora) or even identifying metabolites within our own bodies. Anaerobic fungi could become a scientific boon regarding this process, but only if their RNA is extracted at a particular time. “We found that the regulation of [several] fungal genes … varied at each 24-hour timepoint of the exponential growth phase.” These findings are validated by examples taken from the study itself. Certain fungal strains, when grown on methanogen (an environmentally vital microorganism), create encoded carbohydrate-active enzymes which could become instrumental regarding wider biotechnical research. However, the expression patterns yielding these enzymes changed about 24 hours into the experiment, insisting upon just how important the methods are to extract fungi at multiple points in time during cultivation, meaning they intend to further their research.

Disease-detecting dogs

In the years since its initial 2020 spread, the COVID-19 virus has culturally and politically moved from an international pandemic to a practical fact of life. Still, the dangers it poses cannot be understated. Recently, a research initiative by UC Santa Barbara geography professor Tommy Dickey, collaborating with Heather Junqueira of BioScent DX Inc., has revealed that man’s canine friends could become the key to a more efficient, environmentally friendly method of COVID-19 detection. The crux of these findings lies in the incredibly powerful sense of smell dogs possess. “A dog could detect the equivalent of one drop of [odorous] liquid in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools,” Dickey said. For perspective, this is about three orders of magnitude better than with scientific instrumentation. In some cases, dogs were able to detect COVID-19 in pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic patients whose viral load was too low for conventional tests to work. Not only that, but dogs can distinguish COVID-19 and its variants in the presence of other potentially confounding respiratory viruses, such as those of the common cold or flu. Efficiency becomes key when trying to detect COVID-19; given its immense potential to proliferate within crowded areas, the speed of canine-based detection could become vital in preventing future super-spreader events. An even greater advantage of utilizing dogs for COVID-19 lies in the variety of dogs capable of rooting out the virus. Scent dogs such as beagles, basset hounds and coonhounds would be the ideal dog for the task. A program geared toward canine detection of COVID-19 would bring many benefits and has significant potential for controlling the spread of future pandemics as well as identifying other medical conditions. 

A version of this article appeared on p. 9 of the Oct. 5, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.