As the Earth’s climate continues to warm, insights developed by researchers who study adaptation may help us understand how climate change will affect species across the globe. The research that's happening related to the study of adaptation at NYU Abu Dhabi is both local and global in the most literal sense, as it ranges from the Emirati population of the UAE, to the Horn of Africa, to remote corners of the world’s oceans.
Stéphane Boissinot, professor and program head of biology, is an evolutionary biologist who conducts fieldwork in Ethiopia, the UAE, and the southeastern US, and combines that fieldwork with genomic analyses in the lab.
Boissinot is interested in the evolutionary paths organisms take to adapt to their environment, and whether those paths are similar across different species and locations. “If you look at snakes or geckos in the Namib desert, they look similar to those we have here in the Arabian Peninsula, yet they are completely unrelated,” he said. “We want to know if evolution is taking the same path to respond to a given environment, which is why we study multiple organisms in multiple locations.”
Boissinot says that when it comes to global climate change, organisms will often first shift their range to locations that are more hospitable, instead of following a path of genetic adaptation. But this is, of course, only a possibility for organisms that are mobile. For sedentary organisms like plants and corals, moving house isn’t an option. But whether or not they move from one location to another, a species’ response to climate change will be dependent on its genetic variation, and whether its genetic diversity will make adapting to a changing environment possible, Boissinot says.
If you look at snakes or geckos in the Namib desert, they look similar to those we have here in the Arabian Peninsula, yet they are completely unrelated.
Shady Amin, assistant professor of biology, studies tiny ocean organisms like phytoplankton and bacteria, and the fundamental role they play in the global carbon cycle, the process by which molecules like oxygen and carbon dioxide are processed, recycled, and made available for use by organisms. “The carbon cycle drives life on Earth,” Amin notes. “Plants are an important part of the carbon cycle, but so are phytoplankton and ocean bacteria that channel carbon molecules back and forth between carbon dioxide and other organic molecules.”
When Amin considers changes that are occurring in the world’s oceans related to global climate change, he sees not only a rising temperature, but also an increase in acidification. “Ocean acidification is a major problem because a rise in acidity alters the chemistry of seawater,” making carbonate, and other elements like iron, less accessible for phytoplankton and other organisms who rely on it, Amin said. “Phytoplankton may be much more stressed because of ocean acidification, and all the organisms higher up in the food chain who rely on phytoplankton may suffer too.”
Amin notes that perhaps only one percent of microbes in the ocean have been identified and characterized — the rest remain a mystery. “One of the central questions I’m interested in is to identify these microbes and the molecules they create and determine how they contribute to the global carbon cycle that drives life on Earth.”
Ocean acidification is a major problem because a rise in acidity alters the chemistry of seawater.
Youssef Idaghdour, assistant professor of biology, points out that even human physiology cannot avoid the consequences of being subjected to a rapidly changing environment. “The UAE is one of the best places to study interactions between genes and the environment because of the rapid changes in lifestyle that have happened here,” over the past 50 years, Idaghdour says.
The Emirati population evolved over the course of thousands of years to accommodate itself to a traditional, nomadic lifestyle where food and water were scarce, and survival depended on travel by foot or animal through harsh conditions.
The rapid development of the UAE in the late 20th century led to a new, urban environment to which the local populations were not properly adapted, Idaghdour explained. “With this rapid change, there was a significant increase in the incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other complex diseases,” Idaghdour said. “The genetic make-up of a population does not change in two generations, but changes of the environment act much faster on human physiology through gene-environment interactions, gene expression regulation, and epigenetic mechanisms.”
The UAE is one of the best places to study interactions between genes and the environment because of the rapid changes in lifestyle that have happened here.
At the same time Idaghdour is studying the gene-environment link in Abu Dhabi as part of the UAE Healthy Future Study, he is also running another project in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa, where he and his colleagues are trying to explain the wide variation in symptoms between individuals who contract malaria — why some become extremely sick, while others do not.
This project combines fieldwork in Burkina Faso with sophisticated genomic analysis techniques done in the lab in Abu Dhabi. “I try to embrace complexity in my research and capture the effects of as many factors as possible,” Idaghdour says. “It’s about bringing the environment back to genetics, and we try to design experiments that capture environmental and genetic effects at the same time.”