Biochemistry and Our Changing Climate

Art Courtesy of Luna Aguilar.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘climate change’? Perhaps it’s magnificent glaciers melting away into nothingness, or tall pine trees toppling like dominoes as they go up in flames. Maybe it’s the greenhouse gas emissions from poorly regulated factories or the Atlantic Ocean slowly rising over Florida to swallow it up. For Yale professor Karla Neugebauer, the first image that pops into her mind is one of biochemistry.

Neugebauer, a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and Director of the Yale Center for RNA Science and Medicine, teaches the spring semester class “Biochemistry and Our Changing Climate.” The course focuses on understanding and finding solutions to climate change through the lens of biochemistry. When asked about the focus, Neugebauer used one of her lecture topics to illustrate her point. “In 2016, the Great Barrier Reef spiked a fever. It was literally forty-five degrees Celsius [113 degrees Fahrenheit], resulting in coral bleaching, which happens when the water temperature goes up too high. But a biochemist would ask, ‘Why? What’s the molecular mechanism? And what happened in between?’” she said. Using our understanding of biochemistry, we now know that elevated temperatures can promote the overproduction of reactive oxygen species, unstable molecules that react readily in the cell, damaging DNA, RNA, and proteins and even causing cell death. According to Neugebauer, understanding the molecular mechanisms that underlie this would allow us to look into evolving coral symbiotes that are capable of tolerating higher temperatures—or in other words, to innovate in the face of climate change. This is just one example of the many lecture topics Neugebauer covers in the class, including extremophiles, soil health, and forest fires.

Neugebauer’s motivation for creating the class, which began in the fall of 2021, was to show students that different fields of study must come together to solve the world’s most pressing issues. “Everyone has something to offer. I was concerned that college students didn’t really see the point of digging into a discipline when the world is falling apart,” Neugebauer said. “So I think that it’s very important for people to understand that it’s still very important to learn a discipline, whether it’s acting or music or biochemistry—all of those things are going to be applicable to helping humanity face the challenges ahead.”

The class is divided into one lecture and one discussion section every week. The lecture introduces the week’s topic and places its biology in the context of climate change, while the discussion section offers the opportunity to explore this further through the week’s assigned original research paper. In the spring 2024 semester, which is Neugebauer’s third iteration of the course, there are thirty-eight students, the majority of which are MB&B majors, including seven BS/MS students. Other majors include EVST, MCDB, and non-STEM fields such as English and Philosophy.

The class also features several other unique programs and assignments. Neugebauer takes the students on a field trip to East Rock Park, where they go birding and catch tardigrades, which they bring back to her house to observe over pizza. “There are a lot of people in biochemistry who don’t interact with living things, which is crazy. Your interest is in biology, so you should go out in nature and have a look,” she said. Each student is also required to complete a mini-review, in which Professor Neugebauer asks them to write a short paper on a biochemical issue pertinent to climate change. This is then presented as a five-minute flash talk at the class’s Climate Biochemistry Summit, the culmination of students’ research. “We get to hear all forty projects, and everybody is working on something completely different. Some are more chemistry-oriented, […] and others are more environment-oriented,” she said.

As Neugebauer looks ahead at the ways that biochemistry may inform climate change, there is one topic she is particularly interested in: carbon drawdown, the process by which carbon is sequestered, or stored, in the long-lived products that we need on the planet, such as cement. “Manmade stuff is already over half the mass of the planet. We need to build more buildings because there’s gonna be a ton more human beings on the planet by 2050,” she said. “If we build them out of the current building materials, that’s going to take up the entire carbon budget.” This means that buildings can no longer be made out of concrete and steel. “The answer is to build things out of massive wood because it has carbon dioxide in it and thus can’t go back into the air,” she said.

“Biochemistry and our Changing Climate” is offered in the spring semester and is an MB&B elective. Neugebauer welcomes all students to register.