AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: lizsosome

COVID-19 and Environmental Racism: A Fatal Pair

        In his article “Environmental Racism Has Left Black Communities Especially Vulnerable to COVID-19” published by The Century Foundation, Caesar Berkovitz speaks of research surrounding environmental racism, air pollution, and their impacts on vulnerable populations concerning COVID-19. After outlining the pre-existing inequalities that harm Black individuals during the pandemic (increased risk of exposure due to work hours, disparities in wealth-income, and racism within the healthcare system), he goes into the meaning of residential and environmental racism. Environmental Injustice regards inequality in poor or communities of color that increases exposure to pollution and health risks. Environmental injustice is often paired with minimal environmental protection and environmental quality through government regulations. One aspect of environmental injustice regards the disparity in the location of pollution and bad air quality. Due to the pre-existing residential segregation, often Black individuals are placed in communities that have lower property value, and therefore a lower price on the industrial market. With more industrial factories, highways, shopping malls, and businesses in Black communities, air pollution worsens, decreasing the physical health of those who live there, hence a form of environmental injustice is created. Wealth disparities have allowed white community members to buy property away from these areas such as rivers used for dumping trash, and areas with landfills. Many individuals in these environmentally challenged neighborhoods also do not have a large legislative presence- often financial power comes with political power. 

        Air pollution has also been found to have links to lung cancer. For example, China is a country with a high lung cancer rate. Despite the low smoking prevalence, the large exposure individuals have to air pollution has created around 260,000 lung cancer cases in Chinese women annually. When cells are damaged, altered, or there are changes in their DNA (which can be caused by air pollution), they can become a defective part of the body system. These damaged cells then divide through mitosis without receiving the proper signals at the mitosis checkpoints. Once they do so, they continue to divide and they can create clumps of cells called a tumor. Once cancer cells metastasize, they spread through the blood vessels and they can move through the body to spread cancer to other parts.

        So, you may ask, “how does this all apply to COVID-19?”. Well, when pollution from fossil fuel and industrial emissions are released into the atmosphere, PM 2.5 (or carcinogen) is released with it. The tiny particles of Carcinogen have been proven in a study by Harvard University to increase health risks when someone gets the COVID-19 virus. After looking at more than 3,000 countries all over the world, researchers in this study found that individuals who lived over a decade in a county or place with high levels of PM 2.5 (in comparison to the rest of the world) are 8% more likely to die from COVID-19. Therefore, adding another layer to environmental injustice, with increased pollution from environmental racism comes a higher fatality rate for individuals living in these areas from COVID-19. 

        “Wait, but I thought the environment was getting better because pollution and emissions were decreasing during the pandemic?”. This statement is true, but it doesn’t overpower the pre-existing exposure of pollution present within populations that experience environmental racism. A study done by CREA (Center for Research on Clean Energy and Clean Air), found that due to the lack of oil and coal production and demand, 11,000 air pollution-related deaths have been avoided in Europe, and there has been a 40% reduction in average level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution. However, as CREA also found, the net presence of PM2.5 and NO2 in the atmosphere is increasing- Tangshan, south Hebei, and Shanxi, China for example exceeded their pollution levels from last year.


Photo with “no filter” taken by someone in Taipei, Taiwan where the PM 2.5 level was 152.

         Solving environmental racism includes untangling a web of pre-existing inequitable environmental, social justice, and healthcare legislation- there is no one clear solution. Caesar Berkovitz suggests that both pre-existing improvements and new changes can be made. He argues increasing funding of the Housing Choice Voucher Program at the federal level and increasing rental assistance programs would help reduce residential injustice. In addition to that, one of the main problems many towns face concerning building affordable housing is the “zoning town boards’ ‘ which approve or disapprove the development. Improving the structure of zoning town boards to ensure that at all times, both sides of the community are voiced in the discussion would be a step towards reducing residential inequalities. Redlining and inefficient zoning boards within towns should be the main focus, as it is the root of the unfortunate placement of the individuals harmed by environmental injustice. Increasing federal transportation funds to create the equitable street design and increasing funding for public transformation to reduce fossil fuel emissions from cars as Berkovitz mentions is also another option. Since environmental injustice covers a wide range of legislation and areas, there are various platforms and ways in which humans can help fight it. As we reach what seems like the end of the pandemic, what do you think would be the best solution to fighting environmental injustice? Comment down below! 

Monoclonal Antibodies: The Coronavirus Neutralizer

        An article published by ScienceNews discusses the possible usage of lab-made monoclonal antibodies to treat COVID-19 patients. The first study surrounding monoclonal antibodies suggests that monoclonal antibody drugs can help reduce the number of COVID-19 patients who need a ventilator. The second study explores how the monoclonal antibody drugs can help reduce the amount of COVID-19 viruses in the body, and it explores what the ideal dosage would be to induce the best results to fight against COVID-19.

        In general, antibodies attach to a specific antigen on a virus or infection to send signals to the cell to attack the invader. Monoclonal antibodies can be specifically made to target a specific virus and reduce its ability to replicate, namely, the coronavirus. One of these lab-made monoclonal antibodies is tocilizumab, which reduces inflammation caused by the coronavirus. The first trial of tocilizumab done by Genentech, a biotechnology company, was composed of 452 people who had severe COVID-19 symptoms. It was found that tocilizumab did not reduce the likelihood of death or decrease the intensity of symptoms. However, in phase three of the second trial, Genentech found that out of 389 patients hospitalized due to coronavirus infection that were given tocilizumab were 44% less likely to need a ventilator.

        Tocilizumab can also help combat cytokine storms- a very dangerous reaction to the coronavirus. When a pathogen- the coronavirus in this case- enters the cell, mast cells release histamine. Large phagocytic cells also release cytokines to trigger an innate cellular defense. During a cytokine storm, a large number of cytokines (a type of immune system protein) are secreted. This large amount creates an immune response in which human cells start to attack their own cells. Mukesh Kuma, an immunologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta found that the amount of cytokines produced as a result of SARS-CoV-2 infections is almost 50 times higher than Zika or West Nile virus infections.

        The article also discusses the use of LY-CoV555. LY-CoV555 is another type of monoclonal antibody. It specifically targets the coronavirus’ spike protein. The spike proteins on the coronavirus attach to the ACE2 receptor protein on human cells. This activates the A2 domain, and the virus can then fuse with the host cell membrane. By doing so, the spike protein acts as a key to get into the cell. The virus does not have to undergo receptor-mediated endocytosis, so the virus can enter the cell without a phospholipid membrane enclosing it. By attacking this spike protein, the LY-CoV55 destroys the virus’s ability to enter the cell. After discovering that LY-CoV555 was successful in reducing coronavirus symptoms, scientists conducted tests to find the ideal amount of LY-CoV555 dosage. They found that those who were given a “medium” amount of the dosage had the most success; 1.7 % of people with the medium dosage ended up being hospitalized, while about 9% of people who received a placebo were hospitalized. 

        Bamlanivimab is another type of monoclonal antibody specific for the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. It also stops the coronavirus from attaching to the ACE2 receptor protein and prevents it from passing through the human cell membrane to its interior. On November 9th, 2020, the FDA recently allowed the emergency use of the Bamlanivimab antibody for those infected by the virus that is twelve years or older and is at high risk for the deadly side effects of the coronavirus.

        Rajesh Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at Harvard Medical School, and other scientists think that these trials are an important step, as they show that an monoclonal antibody is having an antiviral effect. While I have experienced any of the monoclonal antibody drugs, I think that they are a progressive move. If monoclonal antibodies can be distributed to various countries, I think that they could be a useful temporary solution for the coronavirus while the world awaits a vaccine in the coming winter months. 

        Do you think monoclonal antibodies could be helpful to COVID-19 patients? Would you prefer monoclonal antibody drugs to a COVID-19 vaccine? Comment down below!

Astronomers: The Next Climate Change Culprit

     An article published in October 2020 on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s website, discusses two of the six papers published in Nature Astronomy in September 2020. The papers discuss astronomers and the large amounts of carbon they emit due to their long flights to meetings and their energy-eating telescopes. These carbon emissions have added to the global warming crisis and the Greenhouse effect. The Greenhouse effect occurs when gases (most commonly Carbon dioxide, Methane, and Nitrous oxide) absorb solar radiated heat that is projected off of the earth’s surface. The trapping of this heat in the atmosphere ultimately increases the overall global temperature. Water, “the moderator of temperature”, has a high specific heat and therefore a high heat of vaporization, as it takes a large amount of energy to raise the temperature of water 1 degree Celsius. Water molecules can absorb large amounts of heat emitted within earth’s lower atmosphere, and radiate this absorbed heat out in all directions. When this heat is released, the water vapor lowers the temperature of the surface it leaves, creating a cooling effect to monitor the temperature. However, in the case of global warming, water vapor acts as a greenhouse gas.  The vapor molecules holds heat within them, and some of the heat is projected back onto the surface, further adding to the Greenhouse effect.

      The first paper in Nature Astronomy discusses a study done by delegates at the 2019 European Astronomical Society (EAS) meeting in France. After sitting through a heatwave during their meeting and sweating through their shirts, the delegates decided to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide they emitted from their meeting travels. They found they produced 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide (1900 tons in total) per delegate. This is more than the average resident in India emits yearly! Besides flights, supercomputers are the next leading cause of astronomers’ carbon emissions. Another study showed that each Australian astronomer produced 37 tons of CO2 equivalent per year. 60% of those carbon emitted came from supercomputers and their energy usage.

     The second paper published discusses the work of MPIA’s Faustine Cantaloupe and her colleagues that uncovered 30 years of weather records from the Paranal Observatory in Chile, operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). They discovered temperatures in Chile rose 1.5°C each year. This increase in temperature causes complications for Paranal’s very large telescope, which does not function past 16°C. Ironically, the carbon the astronomers are producing is hindering their ability to use their telescopes.

     In hopes to combat carbon emissions from astronomers and to help decrease global temperatures, MPIA’s Knud Jahnke plans to set up supercomputers in Iceland, using the environmentally friendly geothermal energy power plants there. Geothermal power plants dig boreholes and use the steam from hot water to run power turbines, harnessing energy without carbon emissions. I recently went to the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland, which uses geothermal energy to heat the famous Blue Lagoon in Iceland! After seeing the power plant in action, I think that installing more supercomputers in Iceland would prove to be very effective and could help reduce their carbon footprint immensely. 

   Here is a photograph of Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland! 

                                                                        Photo by Author

     This year, the European Astronomical Society meeting took place again, but this time they were virtual due to Covid-19. The team of delegates continued their studies and calculated the carbon costs for the new 2020 meeting and discovered that they emitted 582 kilograms of carbon during the entire meeting (based on computer energy usage)- about one–three-thousandth of the previous 2019 meeting in total. The EAS is currently studying a hybrid format for future meetings. 

Do you think Zoom and virtual meetings could help solve the EAS’s carbon-producing problem? Comment down below! 

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