Why allergy seasons are getting worse

If you’ve been itchy, congested, and sneezy for months, you’re not alone. This year’s spring allergy season started early, broke pollen-count records in some parts of the country, and is still going strong in many areas.

In a May 9th article in TIME magazine William Anderegg, U Biology Associate Professor and Director of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy says that climate change is playing a big part.

“We’ve known for a long time that higher [carbon dioxide levels] and turning up the temperature on plants in very controlled environments makes them produce a lot more pollen and start that pollen season earlier,” says Anderegg who researches how climate change affects nature. Now, that’s happening at scale.

Anderegg’s research suggests that, from 1990 to 2018, North American pollen concentrations rose by about 20%, with allergy season starting about 20 days earlier and dragging on more than an extra week by the end of that time period. The effect is happening across the U.S., but parts of the Southeast and Midwest are particular hot spots, he says.

Read the full article in TIME magazine.


The Great Salt Lake’s Long-term Outlook

Dozens of researchers warned the Great Salt Lake “as we know it, is on track to disappear in five years,” in a damning report released in January. The team singled out excessive water consumption as the leading culprit, as the lake has lost 73% of its water and 60% of its surface area since 1850.

U Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Kevin Perry (pictured above) isn’t one of the report’s many authors but he also believes many people misinterpreted this study when it was first released. He explains that, yes, it would still be a Great Salt Lake in five years; however, if water consumption trends continued without much change, it wouldn’t be recognizable anymore.

“It will be dead,” he said, pointing out that salinity levels were already on the brink of killing off brine shrimp at the time the report was released. “The salinity would be so high (that) the brine shrimp and brine flies will all be gone and the birds will all be starving.”

So how did this year’s record snowpack and spring runoff impact the lake’s future?

Read the full story on KSL TV 5.

Lissy Coley Elected to National Academy of Sciences

“I first stepped foot in a tropical rainforest in 1975 and have been back every year doing research on how plants defend themselves against getting eaten by insects,” says Phyllis “Lissy” Coley, distinguished professor emerita of biology at the U. She is newly elected member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

NAS Members are elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Membership is a widely accepted mark of excellence in science and is considered one of the highest honors that a scientist can receive. Current NAS membership totals approximately 2,400 members and 500 international members, of which approximately 190 have received Nobel prizes. This year, Coley is the sole U faculty member to receive the honor and is the 12th College of Science faculty member to be elected.

Coley’s colleague and current Director of the School of Biological Sciences Fred Adler said of the news, “The National Academy of Sciences was established by President Abraham Lincoln to advise the nation about science and technology, and membership recognizes extraordinary achievement in research. When it comes to understanding the complexity of ecosystems and the risks they face in today’s world, Distinguished Professor Lissy Coley is the expert I turn to get to the heart of the question.”

Coley’s expertise will now be more accessible. Concluded Adler, “I am delighted that this inspirational scientist, teacher and mentor will have the opportunity to share her wisdom with our nation at large.”

 A Dynamic Duo

Phyllis “Lissy” Coley and Tom Kursar

With the late Tom Kursar, Coley’s partner-in-life and in work, the couple blended her training in ecology and his in biophysics to work in multiple countries in both the African Congo and the Amazon as well as in Panama, Borneo and Malaysia.

Coley’s signature work on understanding the complexity of ecosystems is due to her focus on why tropical forests are so spectacularly diverse. “How can 650 tree species–more than in all of North America–live together in a single hectare of tropical forest?” she asks. Another question related to the first includes what drives speciation. “We have shown that the arms race with insect herbivores leads to extraordinarily rapid evolution of a battery of plant defenses,” she continues, “particularly chemical toxins, such that a given species of herbivore has evolved counter adaptations that allow it to feed on only plant species with similar defenses.”

It turns out that plant species with different defenses do not share herbivores and therefore can co-exist, promoting high local diversity. The concept that the high biodiversity of tropical forests is due to these antagonistic interactions is now widely accepted by her colleagues in the forest ecology sector and now acknowledged by the NAS.

“I am truly honored that my scientific research and conservation efforts are recognized,” said Coley, “but they would not have been possible without wonderful collaborators. And I am happy that the young scientists I have mentored are continuing to explore the many remaining questions in evolutionary ecology.”

Making it personal

To know Coley and Kursar (who died in 2018) is to know that their research is and has been highly personal. And their ambitions would naturally extend to beyond field research to economic opportunity for their friends and associates in Central America, linking even to social justice. Their concern about forest destruction and the peoples who live in those sites has led to bioprospecting. “We used our curiosity-driven (basic) research to create ways to have benefits from intact forests via drug discovery,” explains Coley. Young, expanding tropical leaves invest fifty percent of their dry weight in hundreds of chemicals. “We thought they could be an undiscovered source of pharmaceutical medicines.”

The duo set their project up in Panama, with the majority of the work being done by local scientists. It has resulted in $15 million of seed money to Panama. Their discoveries have led to promising patents, research experiences for hundreds of students and the creation of more jobs than the country’s ubiquitous and potentially destructive logging.

Left to right: Mayra Ninazunta, Dale Forrister, Yamara de Lourdes Serrano Añazco, Lissy Coley, Tom Kursar

Furthermore, the project has established the island of Coiba as a protected World Heritage Site and created a new voice of Panamanian scientists helping to shape government policy and appreciation of their natural treasures.

While Coley retired from teaching in 2020, her lab and its research, until very recently, continues at the School of Biological Sciences. “I think one of the unifying principles that made our department interesting to me,” she concludes, “is that many faculty were interested at some level in evolution.”

The late K. Gordon Lark, department chair in the 70s, was the impetus for that. “Whether we’re talking about molecular or ecological systems, evolutionary/ecological interactions shape all of that. This has been an important unifier of research interest in the School,” Coley says in tribute of Lark. Along with recent hires of outstanding young faculty researchers, which she hopes will continue, this “unifier” has helped keep such a large academic unit intact. “It has been the glue.”

As Lissy Coley always cared deeply about graduate students, she established the Coley/Kursar Endowment in 2018 to fund graduate student field research in ecology, evolution and organismal biology. The endowment is indicative of her dedication, corroborated by Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science: “Distinguished Professor Coley has advanced our understanding of plant-animal interactions and tropical ecology in spectacular ways. Election to the National Academy is a fitting recognition of her deep and impactful contributions.”


by David Pace

Mathematical Biology Adds Up

Mathematical Biology Adds Up

The intersection between biology and math may seem like a large divide, but in reality, these disciplines gives rise to fascinating research approaches.

Jody Reimer, an assistant professor at the U, has double appointments in biology and math. “Biology is very messy,” Reimer states. “There’s this feeling of wanting to find universal principles or general theories. There’s nothing that refines your thinking better than having to write something down as an equation.”

Reimer is from a small town in Manitoba and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Manitoba. From there, she completed her master’s degree at the University of Oxford. “It’s like the Disneyland of academics,” she jokes, referring to the prestigious university, the oldest in the English-speaking world. “It feels like you’re in a movie about being an academic.” She then moved back to Canada and completed her PhD at the University of Alberta before coming to the U as a postdoctoral researcher to work with Fred Adler and Ken Golden. In 2022 she became an assistant professor in math and biology. 

“My work is very interdisciplinary,” Reimer says. “I typically collaborate with biologists, but it was harder to meet folks in biology while working strictly in the math department.” Her joint appointment in biology and math facilitates collaborations with faculty and researchers in both. Within the intersection of math and biology, Reimer works with ecological research projects, specifically with sea ice.

Sea ice is considered the “soil of the ocean,” as Reimer puts it. The algae within sea ice are “more similar to a terrestrial system of plants growing than they are to a marine system. So marine organisms are growing on a terrestrial-like substrate.” Reimer explains that as an environment, sea ice is very dynamic. If the air temperature changes by ten degrees, the physical characteristics of the ice changes as it melts or freezes in response to the change in temperature. That also changes the fluid permeability of the ice, thus changing the microbial habitat in dramatic ways.

“What the environment looks like determines what can grow there,” Reimer states. “The little algal cells in the ice are also ecosystem engineers. They secrete these exopolymer substances to protect themselves, and that ‘goo’ changes the physics of the ice.”

Since change in temperature affects environments like sea ice in such significant ways, it’s an important area of research in regards to climate change. Research into how remote areas, such as Antarctica and the Arctic, are impacted by climate change as the planet warms by a few degrees is important, especially for polar regions. Reimer is using mechanistic models, which are well-suited to understanding climate change and environmental change as they allow us to explore the implications of previously unobserved environmental conditions.

The policy implications of research like this includes knowing what is vulnerable to climate change and needs protecting. “It’s hard to push for protections for areas if you don't know what you're protecting,” Reimer says. “Which areas are ecologically important and which areas are ecologically vulnerable?”

A woman tags a sedated polar bear.

Photo Credit: Evan Richardson

Reimer had her work on ringed seals in Alaska used in a court case when Alaska attempted to appeal the placement of ringed seals on the Endangered Species List. “It’s kind of unprecedented,” she says, in regards to why ringed seals were placed on the list. “I think polar bears are the first species that were listed, not because they're currently in danger, but because climate change forecasts suggest future population declines.” Reimer continues, saying their listing “was partially based on mathematical modeling work actually showing our best understanding of how polar bear populations respond to Arctic warming. This is how climate change is going to influence them. And it was enough to get them listed.” Ringed seals are listed for the same reason, and Reimer was encouraged to see her own modeling work contribute to that decision.   

Today, Reimer has found a home in Salt Lake City as she gets settled into her new lab in the south biology building. The challenge of being posted in two different departments as a tenure-line faculty member, even in the same college, is having double the administrative load, including showing up at two different faculty meetings and being on committees. With research that relates to both biology and math, things become comparable and quantifiable when they take the form of a mathematical equation, arguably a necessary tool for the great steamship of science to keep plowing the waters of knowledge and understanding.

By CJ Siebeneck
Science Writer Intern


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