BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: pollution

Meaningful Momentum or Mirage? The True Effect of The Covid-19 Pandemic on Our Environment – and How We Must Move Forward

During a time where everyone is forced to self-isolate inside, it may not feel very natural to think about the environment in which we live. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly affected the great outdoors for the better and (if reports are to be believed) the worse.

At first glance, it would be entirely logical to conclude that a decrease in travel and industrial production would lead to a significant boost in the health of the environment. According to the NIH, “the global disruption caused by […] COVID-19 has brought about several effects on the environment and climate. Due to movement restriction and a significant slowdown of social and economic activities, air quality has improved in many cities with a reduction in water pollution in different parts of the world,” therefore allowing many governments to gain more momentum in their strides against climate change.

However, this positive sentiment is not shared by many high-ranking officials of NASA, who believe that the pandemic has put a pause on necessary procedures that served to improve our environment. As a result of social distancing and quarantine mandates, there “are far fewer intentional fires to boost biodiversity [the level of variety of life on Earth] and reduce fuel loads in the Southeast.” The lack of these fires is suspected to have impacted the region’s biodiversity by both eliminating habitats for eukaryotic organisms (organisms with nuclei) who thrive in fiery environments and polluting prokaryotic organisms (organisms without nuclei) with fuel (according to Ben Poulter, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center). Moreover, the positive effects of the pandemic on the environment may not even be sustainable. Per National Geographic, “daily global carbon emissions were down by 17 percent compared to last year [before the pandemic]. But as of June 11, new data show that they are only about 5 percent lower than at the same point in 2019, even though normal activity has not yet fully restarted.” This spike in carbon emissions could be due to both the government “favors” (such as tax breaks, regulatory rollbacks, and cash loans) offered to high-polluting industries in order to help them stay afloat during the pandemic and the fact that the lax quarantine restrictions in place have not been very effective in keeping people off of the road and in their homes. When these two developments are taken into account, the state of our world during the pandemic looks rather grim.

The theory that the so-called “improvement” in our environment’s health may be very short lived is also supported by data concerning former Covid-19 patients. A new study discussed by Healthline reveals that “people who recover from even mild cases of COVID-19 produce antibodies that are believed to protect against infection for at least 5 to 7 months, and could last much longer” (For context, antibodies are blood proteins produced by Plasma B Cells that combat viruses that invade the body. The production of antibodies is part of the body’s Humoral Immune response.). While this is great news for healthcare workers who must deal with the disease firsthand, it has dangerous implications for former Covid-19 patients who may use their newfound “immunity” to resume life as normal, which could undo the minimal environmental progress that our country has made.

Despite this backslide, it is still possible to ameliorate the damage done to the environment after the pandemic ends. The chief editors of Scientific American argue that while the pandemic has “barely made a dent in climate change,” our environmental plight has shown us a way forward: using our newfound free time to fight for justice and equality for marginalized groups that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. “The pandemic has not only aggravated the stark inequities and injustices [against minorities], [but] the mass unemployment it has generated has also given millions of Americans the motivation and opportunity to express their outrage. Their impassioned protests against systemic racism may be essential to moving the U.S. to a more equitable and sustainable future. Change is in the air.” While it may appear unorthodox to equate climate change activism with social justice advocacy, it’s entirely possible that they’re one and the same, as evidenced by the social and environmental reforms proposed by the Green New Deal. Consolidating these two fights against the exploitations of nature and humans may prove to be a viable path forward in the coming months.

Overall, while it’s possible that the pandemic’s improvement of our environment was a false mirage, we can make that imagined progress real by campaigning for all forms of justice, whether it’s environmental or societal.

A Friendzyme of the Environment

A team of researchers at the University of Portsmouth in England have engineered an enzyme that breaks down plastic six times faster than the previous most efficient plastic destroying enzyme. This enzyme specializes in breaking down PET, polyethylene terephthalate, the material most plastic bottles are made of. They created this by reengineering the previous enzyme, PETase, and combining it with another enzyme, MHETase, to create a ‘super enzyme’. They used a method normally utilized by companies in the biofuel industry, who combine enzymes to break down types of cellulase. Granted, it is still far too slow to be effective in breaking down the vast amounts of plastic waste we are faced with, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Enzymes are made of proteins which are made up of amino acids. Amino acids consist of a carboxyl group, an amino group, and a unique R group. Amino acids create chains in which carboxyl group match with amino groups, linking together using covalent peptide bonds, formed after dehydration synthesis. The chains of amino acids begin to fold and create proteins, which are the basis of almost all enzymes.

I think this issue is an important endeavor that should be funded by governments all around the world. We all share the Earth, and it is currently under threat by a number of issues, a prime example being pollution. Up to 8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste may enter the oceans every year. Some studies put the amount of seabirds that contain some form of plastic waste in their system at upwards of 90%. Plastic waste needs solutions before it makes the oceans uninhabitable for more creatures, and a mass produced enzyme may be a valid solution. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large convergence of currents in the Pacific Ocean that has collected so much garbage, a large portion of which is made of plastic, that it is comparable to the size of Texas. Developing an effective enzyme that could quickly break down plastic could become a serious help to minimizing the environmental impact of the Garbage Patch.

While we cannot develop enzymes ourselves, several tips for mitigating our plastic waste are:

-Try to use aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles.

-Always recycle or reuse plastic bottles.

-Cut the holes of six pack rings before disposing so animals cannot be caught in them.

-Use metal and paper straws as a substitute for plastic straws.

 

File:PETase active site.png - Wikimedia Commons

^ The enzyme PETase 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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