Butterfly population collapse linked to climate change

If we lose our pollinators, we'll soon lose everything else.

Butterfly population collapse linked to climate change
Credit: +NatureStock / Adobe Stock
  • New research has found that warmer autumns are driving the extinction of monarch butterflies.
  • Globally, 40 percent of insect populations are in decline; one-third are in danger of extinction.
  • Insects pollinate three-fourths of the world's crop supply, resulting in 1.4 billion jobs.

Insects might often seem like a nuisance, yet life on this planet would be impossible without them. Sure, mosquitoes kill more humans every year than any other animal, but there's a trade-off when it comes to such invertebrates: without pollinators, we wouldn't be able to survive. And while Americans might scoff at the idea, insects are a food source for four-fifths of the planet (and Americans really should consider this route).

Speaking of 80 percent, that was the same percentage of one 2016 study regarding European insect collapse. More recent research has found that 40 percent of insect populations are in decline; one-third is in danger of extinction. On the face that sounds like more enjoyable summers until you realize that, for humans at least, the trend could result in no more summers at all. As two Australian researchers phrase it,

"Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades. The repercussions this will have for the planet's ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least."

Pesticides have long been identified as a driver of insect collapse. They're not the only agricultural problem, however. In fact, as a new study (published in Science) shows, the thousand little cuts that have led to climate change are driving extinction—especially, in this case, of monarch butterflies.

Insect ecologists Art Shapiro and Matthew Forister looked at 450 butterfly species at 70 different locations in the western United States. While butterfly numbers have been dropping regularly since 1977 at a rate of 1.6 percent every year, the trend seems to be increasing. Just last month, a disturbing report from Mexico found that the hibernating population of monarchs has decreased by 26 percent since 2019, predominantly due to deforestation and drought— factors helping drive or due to climate change.

Credit: Dave / Adobe Stock

While problematic, human development and pesticides have nowhere near the impact of warming autumns. Fall temperatures have outpaced summer increases for years, disrupting butterfly breeding patterns and the life cycles of the plants they depend on.

Fewer butterflies aren't just an aesthetic problem. Forister notes that the loss of these key pollinators could cause an ecosystem collapse in the coming years. Hotter falls also negatively impact bee populations. Recent colony collapses in Colombia are likely the result of monocropping avocados and citrus.

The enormity of this problem cannot be overstated. Insects fertilize for us—three-quarters of all crops across the globe. According to a 2016 study, 1.4 billion jobs depend on pollinators. With the loss of insects, our food supply (and a giant economic driver of society) goes with them.

Regional efforts to save monarch butterflies are underway. Tribal organizations in Oklahoma are trying to replant milkweed—often viewed as a pest by farmers—to boost butterfly populations. The Tribal Alliance for Pollinators (TEAM) has secured nearly a quarter-million dollars in the last three years to plant milkweed and nectar plants to help the annual butterfly migration to Mexico.

The road ahead will not be easy. Until legislative measures are enforced to curb climate change, seasons will continue to be unpredictable: warmer autumns, colder winters, especially in places unaccustomed to such drastic changes in temperature—last month's storms in Texas provide a cautionary tale. Yet we've had many such tales at this point. With the loss of insects, there won't be any more stories left to be told.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
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Why so gassy? Mysterious methane detected on Saturn’s moon

Scientists do not know what is causing the overabundance of the gas.

An impression of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through a water plume on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • A new study looked to understand the source of methane on Saturn's moon Enceladus.
  • The scientists used computer models with data from the Cassini spacecraft.
  • The explanation could lie in alien organisms or non-biological processes.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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