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New Link Found Between Sex and Viruses

February 28, 2017
Contacts: 

Matthew Wright 301-405- 9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Sexual reproduction and viral infections have a lot in common. According to new research, both processes rely on a single protein for the seamless fusion of two cells—sperm and egg cells and virus and cell membrane. This protein is widespread among viruses, single-celled protozoans, and many plants and arthropods, but is not found in fungi or vertebrates such as humans.

Ribbon diagram images of two closely related proteins

William Snell, a senior author of the study and research professor at the University of Maryland, Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics, and colleagues from the Pasteur Institute, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Global Phasing, Ltd., Hannover Medical School and German Center for Infection Research, published their findings in the February 23 issue of Cell.

The international research team notes that the protein, called HAP2, acts as a common, biochemical “key” that enables two cell membranes to become one, resulting in the combination of genetic material—a necessary step for sexual reproduction. The researchers say the findings suggest that the protein could provide a promising target for the development of vaccines, therapies and other disease control methods, which  could help fight parasitic diseases, such as malaria, and boost efforts to control insect pests.

“Our findings show that nature has a limited number of ways it can cause cells to fuse together into a single cell,” said Snell. “A protein that first made sex possible—and is still used for sexual reproduction in many of Earth’s organisms—is identical to the protein used by dengue and Zika viruses to enter human cells. This protein must have really put the spice in the primordial soup.”

Snell and team studied HAP2, in the single-celled green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. HAP2 is common among single-celled protozoans and plants and arthropods. Prior results from Snell and collaborators, as well as other research groups, indicate that HAP2 is necessary for sex cell fusion in the organisms that possess the protein. But prior to this new study, the precise mechanism was unclear.

For the current study, Snell and his UT Southwestern colleagues used sophisticated computer analysis tools to compare the amino acid sequence of Chlamydomonas HAP2 with that of known viral fusion proteins. The results suggested a striking degree of similarity, especially in a region called the “fusion loop” that allows the viral proteins to successfully invade a cell. If HAP2 functioned like a viral fusion protein, Snell reasoned, then disrupting HAP2’s fusion loop should block its ability to fuse sex cells.

When Snell’s team changed just a single amino acid in the fusion loop of Chlamydomonas HAP2, the protein lost its function entirely. The sex cells were able to stick together—a process that depends on other proteins—but they were not able to complete the final fusion of their cell membranes. Similarly, the cells could not fuse when the researchers introduced an antibody that covered up the HAP2 fusion loop.

“We were thrilled with these results, because they supported our new model of HAP2 function,” Snell said. “But we needed to visualize the three-dimensional structure of the HAP2 protein to be sure it was similar to viral fusion proteins.”

Snell reached out to Felix Rey, a structural biologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris who specializes in viruses. Rey and his colleagues determined the structure of Chlamydomonas HAP2 using X-ray crystallography. Rey’s results demonstrated that HAP2 was functionally identical to dengue and Zika viral fusion proteins.

“The HAP2 protein from Chlamydomonas is folded in an identical fashion to the viral proteins,” Rey said, referring to the molecular folding that creates the three-dimensional structure of all proteins from a simple chain of amino acids. “The resemblance is unmistakable.”

HAP2 appears to be necessary for cell fusion in a wide variety of organisms, including disease-causing protozoans, invasive plants and destructive insect pests. So far, every known version of HAP2 shares the one critical amino acid in the fusion loop region. As such, HAP2 could provide a promising target for vaccines, therapies and other control methods.

Snell is particularly encouraged by the possibility of controlling malaria, which is caused by the single-celled protozoan Plasmodium falciparum.

“Developing a vaccine that blocks the fusion of Plasmodium sex cells would be a huge step forward,” Snell said, noting that Plasmodium has a complex life cycle that depends on both mosquito and human hosts. “Our findings strongly suggest new strategies to target Plasmodium HAP2 that could disrupt the mosquito-borne stage of the Plasmodium life cycle.”

In addition to Snell and Rey, co-authors of study, “The ancient gamete fusogen HAP2 is a eukaryotic class II fusion protein,”  include Juliette Fedry, Gerard Péhau-Arnaudet, M. Alejandra Tortorici, Francois Traincard and Annalisa Meola (Pasteur Institute); Yanjie Liu, Jimin Pei, Wenhao Li and Nick Grishin (UT Southwestern); Gerard Bricogne (Global Phasing, Ltd.) and Thomas Krey (Pasteur Institute, Hannover Medical School and German Center for Infection Research).

Snell joined UMD in June 2016 and performed the majority of the work at his previous institution, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Research was supported by the United States National Institutes of Health (Award Nos. GM56778 and GM094575), the Welch Foundation (Award No. I-1505), the European Research Council, the Pasteur Institute and the French National Center for Scientific Research. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations. 


Photo caption: This pair of “ribbon diagram” images compares the three-dimensional structures of two closely related proteins, determined by X-ray crystallography: (L) the HAP2 protein from the single-celled alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and (R) the fusion protein from dengue virus. Both proteins are necessary for fusion with a cell membrane, enabling both sexual reproduction (via the fusion of sex cells) and viral invasion of a cell, respectively. New research suggests that these proteins are functionally identical and evolved early in the history of life on Earth. Felix Rey/Pasteur Institute 

University of Maryland Among Peace Corps’ Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges

February 28, 2017
Contacts: 

Natifia Mullings 301-405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md.– The University of Maryland is ranked No. 15 among large schools on the Peace Corp’s 2017 Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges and Universities list, with 42 alumni currently volunteering worldwide. This is the seventh consecutive year that UMD has ranked among the top large schools.

Since the Peace Corps’ founding in 1961, 1,242 alumni from UMD have traveled abroad to serve as volunteers. 

Kaitlyn Moberly, a UMD alumna, currently serves as an agriculture volunteer in Nepal. For the past two years, she has made a difference in her host community through subtle personal interactions every day—an impact she credits to her education and experiences at the University of Maryland.

“My primary work has been kiwi cultivation with farmers in my community for food diversity and income generation,” said Moberly. “Not only did my education at UMD support my Peace Corps journey, but my experiences there did as well. During my time at Maryland, I participated in a study abroad to India, during which I worked with staff members at a local hospital. It was a great introduction to having professionalism in a new culture, time management, and a taste of how it felt to be so far away from home.”

The Peace Corps ranks its top volunteer-producing colleges and universities annually according to the size of the student body. View the complete 2017 rankings of the top 25 schools in each category here and find an interactive map that shows where alumni from each college are serving here.

UMD Named a 2017 Best Value College by The Princeton Review

February 24, 2017
Contacts: 

Natifia Mullings 301-405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – For the seventh consecutive year, the University of Maryland has been named a Best Value College in The Princeton Review’s latest book “Colleges That Pay You Back: The 200 Schools That Give You The Best Bang For Your Tuition Buck.” Published every year, The Princeton Review profiles the nation’s best schools for academic programs, affordability and career prospect. 

According to The Princeton Review, the University of Maryland offers a comprehensive aid program for students who demonstrate financial need and boasts a full suite of merit-based scholarships, making a UMD degree an exceptional value. This includes a prestigious merit scholarship, the President’s scholarship, and several national merit, creative and performing arts and departmental scholarships.

In addition to its affordability, the University of Maryland is highlighted for its diversity, outstanding honors programs and special access to agencies, companies, and organizations within its community. 

“More than 100 undergraduate degrees are offered here, and the university’s location near Washington, D.C. means that top-notch research and internship opportunities are literally in your backyard," said the book’s editors.

The Princeton Review evaluated 650 U.S. universities based on 40 indicators, including academic quality, cost, availability of financial aid, graduation rates, student debt, alumni salaries and job satisfaction.

UMD has performed well in a variety of national rankings. Maryland ranked No. 14 among American public universities, according to Forbes Magazine. The university also ranked No. 8 for “best value” for in-state students and No. 10 for out-of-state-students in the Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine. The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine ranked UMD No. 9 for its undergraduate entrepreneurship program. 

 

University of Maryland Recognized as a Top Producer of U.S. Fulbright Students

February 23, 2017
Contacts: 

Natifia Mullings 301-405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md. —The University of Maryland has been named to the list of American colleges and universities that produced the most 2016-2017 Fulbright U.S. Students by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. 

Fifteen UMD students and alumni were awarded a Fulbright grant to study, conduct research or teach English around the world. This year’s recipients include five seniors, six graduate students, and four alumni who will travel to various countries to facilitate projects in academic specialty areas such as dance, environmental science, public health, biology, international relations, history, and geography.

Read more about UMD’s Fulbright winners

Since its inception in 1946, the Fulbright Program has provided more than 370,000 participants—chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential — with the opportunity to exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns. Over 1,900 U.S. students, artists and young professionals in more than 100 different fields of study are offered Fulbright Program grants to study, teach English, and conduct research annually. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program operates in over 140 countries throughout the world.  

The top Fulbright-producing institutions are highlighted in the Feb. 21 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

 

 

 

UMD Researchers Use Space Laser Technology to Explain Dry Season Growth in Amazon Rainforest

February 22, 2017
Contacts: 

Sara Garvin 301-405-1733

COLLEGE PARK, Md.For more than a decade, scientists have debated what’s known as the “green up” phenomenon in the Amazon rainforest—when vegetation appears to thrive and grow fuller during the dry season with little or no rainfall. While some researchers have supported hypotheses that drought-induced growth does occur in the Amazon, others have argued it is more likely an optical illusion created by shadows cast from satellite positioning.

Photo of seasonal changes in canopy and understory over the AmazonNew research from the University of Maryland Department of Geographical Sciences published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS) utilizes lidar satellite technology to more accurately measure seasonal changes in leaf area within the Amazon. Research Associate Hao Tang and Professor Ralph Dubayah analyzed data sets collected from NASA’s Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS) and found strong evidence of green up during the dry season in both the tree canopy and the underbrush; just not at the same time.

“Trees in the Amazon forests not only respond to seasonal environmental changes, but also have active ecological interactions as a community,” Tang said. “Tall trees grow leaves at the early dry season when both water and light are abundant; they then drop leaves during the mid-to-late dry season, not only protecting themselves from drought but also helping understory and small trees grow.”

“This pattern is easily missed if you average over the entire Amazon basin because it progresses, almost like a wave, from south to north, with the dry season,” Dubayah added. “There is a plausible, ecological explanation for this: Light is driving the growth of the canopy in the early dry season and light from small gaps in the canopy that form later in the dry season drive the growth of the small shrubs and trees near the forest floor.”

The UMD researchers stress the need for better lidar observations of the Amazon’s canopy structure from space in order to more fully understand how rainforests respond to environmental and climate changes. Dubayah leads UMD’s Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI), a NASA-funded mission to place a multi-beam laser instrument on the International Space Station in late 2018.

“The GEDI mission is optimized precisely to make these kinds of difficult measurements possible. It will provide more than 15 billion cloud-free observations during its 18-month mission and should greatly enhance our ability to understand canopy dynamics in the Amazon and elsewhere,” Dubayah said.  


Photo caption: Seasonal changes in canopy and understory over the Amazon

 

UMD Physicist Improves Method for Designing Experimental Fusion Reactors

February 15, 2017
Contacts: 

Matthew Wright 301-405-9267

Photo of new stellarator coils

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Development of nuclear fusion—the process that powers stars—into a viable source for energy on Earth remains far in the future. However, a new software advance created by University of Maryland physicist Matt Landreman could help speed the process a bit by bringing down the cost and time needed to build stellarators, one of the two types of complex nuclear fusion reactors used to explore fusion’s potential as an energy source.

Stellarators work by generating a ring of blazing-hot plasma inside a precisely shaped magnetic field generated by a complex arrangement of external electromagnetic coils. Landreman's new method is better at balancing tradeoffs between the ideal magnetic field shape and potential coil shapes, resulting in designs with more space between the coils. This extra space allows better access for repairs and more places to install sensors.

Inside a fusion reactor, when the plasma gets to several million degrees—as hot as the interior of the sun—atomic nuclei begin to fuse together, releasing massive amounts of energy. Modern computer-aided designs for the complex configuration required for stellarators has boosted interest in these reactors—the first of which were designed and built in the 1950s—versus the competing fusion reactor design known as the tokamak.

To build a rare and expensive stellarator reactor, engineers first use a series of algorithms to create exacting plans for the design of the elaborate ring of electromagnetic coils. The wide variety of possible coil shapes that can generate identical magnetic fields, adds levels of complexity to this design process. Landreman is one of the few researchers who have studied how to choose the best among all potential coil shapes for a specific stellarator.

Through this work, he has made an important revision to one of the most common software tools used to design stellarators. Landreman’s new method is described in a paper published February 13, 2017 in the journal Nuclear Fusion.

“Instead of optimizing only the magnetic field shape, this new method considers the complexity of the coil shapes simultaneously. So there is a bit of a tradeoff,” said Landreman, an assistant research scientist at the UMD Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics (IREAP) and sole author of the research paper. “It’s a bit like buying a car. You might want the cheapest car, but you also want the safest car. Both features can be at odds with each other, so you have to find a way to meet in the middle.”

Researchers used the previous method, called the Neumann Solver for Fields Produced by External Coils (NESCOIL) and first described in 1987, to design many of the stellarators in operation today—including the Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X). The largest stellarator in existence, W7-X began operation in 2015 at the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics in Germany.

“Most designs, including W7-X, started with a specifically shaped magnetic field to confine the plasma well. Then the designers shaped the coils to create this magnetic field,” Landreman explained. “But this method typically required a lot of trial-and-error with the coil design tools to avoid coils coming too close together, making them infeasible to build, or leaving too little space to access the plasma chamber for maintenance.”

Landreman’s new method, which he calls Regularized NESCOIL—or REGCOIL for short—gets around this by tackling the coil spacing issue of stellarator design in tandem with the shaping of the magnetic field itself. The result, Landreman said, is a fast, more robust process that yields better coil shapes on the first try.

“In mathematics, we’d call stellarator coil design an ‘ill-posed problem,’ meaning there are a lot of potential solutions. Finding the best solution is highly dependent on posing the problem in the right way,” Landreman said. “REGCOIL does exactly that by simplifying coil shapes in a way that the problem can be solved very efficiently.”

Modeling tests performed by Landreman suggest that the designs produced by REGCOIL confine hot plasma in a desirable shape, while significantly increasing the minimum distances between coils.

“This field is still in the basic research stage, and every new design is totally unique,” Landreman said. “With these incompatible features to balance, there will always be different points where you can decide to strike a compromise. The REGCOIL method allows engineers to examine and model many different points along this spectrum.”

The research paper, “An improved current potential method for fast computation of stellarator coil shapes,” Matt Landreman, was published February 13, 2017 in the journal Nuclear Fusion. 

This work was supported by the United States Department of Energy (Award Nos. DE-FG02-93ER54197 and DE-AC02-05CH11231). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of this organization.


 Photo caption: The solid lines are shapes made by the old software, while the dotted lines are shapes made by the new software. Matt Landreman/University of Maryland physicist.

 

 

 

University of Maryland Blood Test Offers Potential Aid in Schizophrenia Diagnosis

February 13, 2017
Contacts: 

Alyssa Wolice 301-405-3936

COLLEGE PARK, MD. — Researchers from the University of Maryland College Park (UMD) and Baltimore (UMB) campuses have developed a blood test that could help doctors more quickly diagnose schizophrenia and other disorders. Their study, “Redox Probing for Chemical Information of Oxidative Stress,” was recently published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

“We hope our new technique will allow a more rapid detection and intervention for schizophrenia, and ultimately lead to better outcomes,” said Gregory Payne, one of the authors and a joint professor with UMD’s Fischell Department of Bioengineering (BIOE) and the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR).  IBBR is a partnership of the University of Maryland College Park, the University of Maryland Baltimore (UMB), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe mental disorder that affects approximately one percent of the U.S. adult population and influences how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. The onset of symptoms usually begins between ages 16 and 30. Symptoms can range from visual and auditory hallucinations and movement disorders to difficulty beginning and sustaining activities.

Currently, diagnosing schizophrenia and similar disorders requires a thorough psychological evaluation and a comprehensive medical exam to rule out other conditions. A patient may be evaluated for six months or more before receiving a diagnosis and beginning treatment, particularly if he or she shows only early signs of the disorder.

Recent studies have indicated that patient outcomes could be improved if the time elapsed between the onset of symptoms and the initiation of treatment is much shorter. For this reason, researchers believe a chemical test that could detect oxidative stress in the blood—a state commonly linked with schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders—could be invaluable in helping to diagnose schizophrenia more quickly.

The UMD and UMB team, led by IBBR research associate Eunkyoung Kim, used a discovery-driven approach based on the assumptions that chemical biomarkers relating to oxidative stress could be found in blood, and that they could be measured by common electrochemical instruments.

Building on an understanding of how foods are tested for antioxidants, an iridium salt was used to probe blood serum samples for detectable optical and electrochemical signals that indicate oxidative stress in the body. The promising initial tests have shown various biological reductants can be detected, including glutathione, the most prominent antioxidant in the body.

The group worked with professor of psychiatry Deanna Kelly and her team at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, University of Maryland School of Medicine, to perform an initial clinical evaluation using serum samples from 10 clinical research study participants who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and a healthy control group. Using the new testing method, the research group was able to correctly differentiate the samples of those who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia from those who had no history of the disorder.

“Much emerging data suggests that schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders may be due, in part, to inflammation and oxidative stress abnormalities,” Kelly said. “Current methods for measuring these potential biomarkers are not standardized and have many flaws. Our team is excited to work with our collaborators at the University of Maryland, College Park to help develop a technique that can more globally measure these outcomes. Being able to have a subjective marker for clinical response or aid in more prompt diagnosis could be revolutionary.”

Researchers from the university’s Fischell Department of Bioengineering (BIOE), Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR), Institute for Systems Research (ISR), Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and MEMS Sensors and Actuators Laboratory (MSAL), as well as the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Psychiatric Research Center contributed to the paper. The full list of authors is: Eunkyoung Kim (BIOE/IBBR), Thomas E. Winkler (BIOE/MSAL), Christopher Kitchen (Maryland Psychiatric Research Center), Mijeong Kang (BIOE/IBBR), George Banis (BIOE/MSAL), William Bentley (BIOE/IBBR), Deanna Kelly (Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, University of Maryland School of Medicine), Reza Ghodssi (ISR/ECE/MSAL/BIOE), and Gregory Payne (BIOE/IBBR).

This research is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and the National Institutes of Health.

DeVos Institute at UMD Launches Online Course – The Cycle: Management of Successful Arts and Cultural Organizations

February 13, 2017
Contacts: 

Jarred Small 301-314-2531

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, a global leader in providing training, consultation, and implementation support for arts managers and their boards, announces a free online course for arts managers, students, and arts enthusiasts around the globe as one of the University’s Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). 


Taught by DeVos Institute Chairman Michael M. Kaiser and President Brett Egan, the six-week course introduces participants to a management philosophy called The Cycle, the Institute’s theory of organizational activity that prioritizes investment in great art. The course is designed for those who are interested in learning how to support thriving arts and cultural organizations regardless of art form, geography, or size.
 

Learning from their work with managers from over 80 countries around the world, the DeVos Institute developed The Cycle as a simple, but powerful tool to assist managers in their effort to respond to an increasingly complex environment and propel their institutions to excellence. The Cycle is explained further by Kaiser and Egan in their formative book The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations. 

“The Cycle reflects what I have learned in my 32-year arts management career,” said Kaiser. “Arts organizations that thrive are the ones that create exciting and surprising art, market that art well and build a family of supporters year in and year out. This MOOC is intended to help arts leaders and board members to create this cycle in their organizations."

Students of the course have responded positively to the opportunity to learn first-hand what it takes to run a successful cultural operation. “It's a great course for small and large organizations to undertake when starting out, or as a refresher,” said one participant. “All arts-related organizations probably do some version of The Cycle on a daily basis, but it's the way the course is laid out in a simple format that wills all of us to become more efficient in our time.” 

The course includes lectures, case studies from managers around the United States and the world, and activities to assist participants in applying the principles of The Cycle in an organizational setting. 

By taking the course, participants will learn: 

  • the importance of bold, exciting, and mission-driven programming in an organization;
  • how long-term artistic planning can help an organization produce this work;
  • how an organization can aggressively market that programming and the institution behind it to develop a family of supporters - including ticket buyers, board members, donors, trustees and volunteers;
  • how an organization can cultivate and steward this family to build a healthy base of earned and contributed income; and
  • how an organization can reinvest that income into increasingly ambitious programming year after year. 

“As a leading public research university, the University of Maryland is thrilled to work with our DeVos Institute of Arts Management to use MOOCs as a way to increase the reach of the DeVos Institute, helping nonprofits worldwide with effective tools to strengthen their organizations,” said Ben Bederson, Associate Provost of Learning Initiatives at the University of Maryland. 


“It is a unique offering aimed at overcoming the challenges these valued institutions face, providing richer support, and going beyond the book, while being so much more accessible than a trip around the world to attend a course,” added UMD’s MOOC program manager, Bill Aarhus.

The next weekly session will begin March 6. New sessions will begin each month. Participants may enroll at www.DeVosInstitute.net/TheCycleOnlineCourse. All course material is available on demand upon enrollment for self-paced learners.

The online course is made possible with the support of the University of Maryland. 

 

It's More than Just Climate Change

February 9, 2017
Contacts: 

Lee Tune 301-405-4679

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A new scientific paper by a University of Maryland-led international team of distinguished scientists, including five members of the National Academies, argues that there are critical two-way feedbacks missing from current climate models that are used to inform environmental, climate, and economic policies. The most important inadequately-modeled variables are inequality, consumption, and population.

In this research, the authors present extensive evidence of the need for a new paradigm of modeling that incorporates the feedbacks that the Earth System has on humans, and propose a framework for future modeling that would serve as a more realistic guide for policymaking and sustainable development.

 

Twelve of the interdisciplinary team of 20 coauthors are from the University of Maryland, with multiple other universities (Northeastern University, Columbia University, George Mason University, Johns Hopkins University, and Brown University) and other institutions (Joint Global Change Research Institute, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, the Institute for Global Environment and Society, Japan’s RIKEN research institute, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) also represented.

 

The study explains that the Earth System (e.g., atmosphere, ocean, land, and biosphere) provides the Human System (e.g., humans and their production, distribution, and consumption) not only the sources of its inputs (e.g., water, energy, biomass, and materials) but also the sinks (e.g., atmosphere, oceans, rivers, lakes, and lands) that absorb and process its outputs (e.g., emissions, pollution, and other wastes).

 

Titled "Modeling Sustainability: Population, Inequality, Consumption, and Bidirectional Coupling of the Earth and Human Systems", the paper describes how the rapid growth in resource use, land-use change, emissions, and pollution has made humanity the dominant driver of change in most of the Earth’s natural systems, and how these changes, in turn, have critical feedback effects on humans with costly and serious consequences, including on human health and well-being, economic growth and development, and even human migration and societal conflict. However, the paper argues that these two-way interactions ("bidirectional coupling") are not included in the current models.

 

The Oxford University Press's multidisciplinary journal National Science Review, which published the paper, has highlighted the work in its current issue, pointing out that "the rate of change of atmospheric concentrations of CO2, CH4, and N2O [the primary greenhouse gases] increased by over 700, 1000, and 300 times (respectively) in the period after the Green Revolution when compared to pre-industrial rates." See Figure 1 from the Highlights article, reproduced below.


"Many datasets, for example, the data for the total concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases, show that human population has been a strong driver of the total impact of humans on our planet Earth. This is seen particularly after the two major accelerating regime shifts: Industrial Revolution (~1750) and Green Revolution (~1950)" said Safa Motesharrei, UMD systems scientist and lead author of the paper. "For the most recent time, we show that the total impact has grown on average ~4 percent per year between 1950 and 2010, with almost equal contributions from population growth (~1.7 percent) and GDP per capita growth (~2.2 percent). This corresponds to a doubling of the total impact every ~17 years. This doubling of the impact is shockingly rapid."

"However, these human impacts can only truly be understood within the context of economic inequality,” pointed out political scientist and co-author Jorge Rivas of the Institute for Global Environment and Society. "The average per capita resource use in wealthy countries is 5 to 10 times higher than in developing countries, and the developed countries are responsible for over three quarters of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from 1850 to 2000."

University of Maryland geographer and co-author Klaus Hubacek added: "The disparity is even greater when inequality within countries is included. For example, about 50 percent of the world’s people live on less than $3 per day, 75 percent on less than $8.50, and 90 percent on less than $23. One effect of this inequality is that the top 10 percent produce almost as much total carbon emissions as the bottom 90 percent combined."

The study explains that increases in economic inequality, consumption per capita, and total population are all driving this rapid growth in human impact, but that the major scientific models of Earth-Human System interaction do not bidirectionally (interactively) couple Earth System Models with the primary Human System drivers of change such as demographics, inequality, economic growth, and migration.

The researchers argue that current models instead generally use independent, external projections of those drivers. "This lack of two-way coupling makes current models likely to miss critical feedbacks in the combined Earth-Human system," said National Academy of Engineering member and co-author Eugenia Kalnay, a Distinguished University Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland.

"It would be like trying to predict El Niño with a sophisticated atmospheric model, but with the Sea Surface Temperatures taken from external, independent projections by, for example, the United Nations," said Kalnay. "Without including the real feedbacks, predictions for coupled systems cannot work; the model will get away from reality very quickly."

"Ignoring this bidirectional coupling of the Earth and Human Systems can lead to missing something important, even decisive, for the fate of our planet and our species," said co-author Mark Cane, G. Unger Vetlesen Professor of Earth and Climate Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who recently won the Vetlesen Prize for creating the first coupled ocean–atmosphere model with feedbacks that successfully predicted El Niño.

"The result of not dynamically modeling these critical Human-Earth System feedbacks would be that the environmental challenges humanity faces may be significantly underestimated. Moreover, there’s no explicit role given to policies and investments to actively shape the course in which the dynamics unfold. Rather, as the models are designed now, any intervention — almost by definition — comes from the outside and is perceived as a cost," said co-author Matthias Ruth, Director and Professor at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University. "Such modeling, and the mindset that goes with it, leaves no room for creativity in solving some of the most pressing challenges."

"The paper correctly highlights that other human stressors, not only the climate ones, are very important for long-term sustainability, including the need to reduce inequality'', said Carlos Nobre (not a co-author), one of the world’s leading Earth System scientists, who recently won the prestigious Volvo Environment Prize in Sustainability for his role in understanding and protecting the Amazon. "Social and economic equality empowers societies to engage in sustainable pathways, which includes, by the way, not only the sustainable use of natural resources but also slowing down population growth, to actively diminish the human footprint on the environment."

Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, who was not a co-author of the paper, commented: "We cannot separate the issues of population growth, resource consumption, the burning of fossil fuels, and climate risk. They are part of a coupled dynamical system, and, as the authors show, this has dire potential consequences for societal collapse. The implications couldn’t be more profound."

"Modeling Sustainability: Population, Inequality, Consumption, and Bidirectional Coupling of the Earth and Human Systems" is available at: https://academic.oup.com/nsr/article/doi/10.1093/nsr/nww081/2669331/Modeling-Sustainability-Population-Inequality and https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nww081

 

 

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July 24
Engineers at the University of Maryland have invented an entirely new kind of battery. It is bio-compatible because it... Read