Breadcrumbs

Waikato researchers aim to find out what happens to life as the world heats up

17 December 2019

Louis Schipper & Vic Arcus
Professor Louis Schipper (left) and Professor Vic Arcus (right) from the University of Waikato are looking at whether there’s a single theory of temperature dependence that applies to life.

A large research project that seeks to understand how biology responds to increasing temperature could give insight into what may really happen to life if our planet heats up.

Professor Vic Arcus and Professor Louis Schipper from the University of Waikato are two of four key principal investigators leading a project that aims to determine whether there’s a single theory of temperature dependence that applies to life.

Their research involves collaborating with nine other scientists from the US, UK and Australia, all with different scientific backgrounds, to gather data from different time scales and global ecosystems to test their theory.

“There are some really important outcomes that can come from this,” says Professor Schipper. “We’re trying to understand how biology responds to temperature, right across a range of spatial and time scales.

“What we find can tell us more about how things have evolved through time as temperature has changed, and it will allow us to make better predictions about how the biology of the world is going to change as the world warms up”.

Professor Arcus and Professor Schipper have recently received a first-ever Marsden Fund Council Grant worth $3 million, which is given specifically for large interdisciplinary research projects.

Professor Arcus, an expert in enzymes, says the crux of their research comes down to what happens at the molecular level, and how enzymes – macromolecular biological catalysts that speed up chemical reactions in the body – affect biology at different temperatures.

“Enzymes have a weird response to temperature. But if everything biological needs enzymes, then the enzymes’ response to temperature determines how biological systems respond to temperature. And that is fundamentally different to how chemical reactions (without enzymes) respond to temperature.

“It’s like baking a cake versus baking bread. When baking a cake, you have chemical reactions that occur as the temperature increases. For example, you add baking soda to the mixture, put it in the oven, and the cake rises.

“When you bake bread, you add yeast which is a microorganism. The way yeast responds to temperature is fundamentally different to the way a cake responds to temperature.  If we understand how yeast responds and how enzymes in yeast respond to temperature, then we can understand how biology is going to behave as the temperature changes during the day, or between seasons or in a warming world.”

Currently, Professor Arcus and Professor Schipper have been looking at the relationship between photosynthesis (fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and producing oxygen) and plant respiration – the process of plants taking in oxygen and releasing it as carbon dioxide.

“The really significant example we’re working on is what’s going to happen to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as the temperature goes up,” says Professor Arcus.

“We’re adding all this carbon dioxide from fossil fuel, but biology is responding to that and it’s very unclear how biology is going to respond if temperatures continue to rise.

“At the moment we’re looking at carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which gets pulled into plants by photosynthesis, and Professor Schipper is looking at biologically produced carbon dioxide that goes up into the atmosphere, via a process called respiration.

“If you want to know what the whole biosphere is going to do as the temperature goes up, you need to know what photosynthesis and respiration are going to do.”

Professor Schipper says their current research around plant respiration will be the foundation of their Marsden project. And if successful, they could answer whether there’s a single theory for what is being observed across a breath of scientific disciplines.

“Vic came up with this beautiful equation, and beautiful theory, that we are testing. We don’t yet know if it’s absolutely correct, but it comes from really strong theoretical background and it explains what we both observe, and what our other colleagues observe, in our respective scientific fields.”


Latest stories

Related stories

Waikato computer scientists revolutionise the car parking experience through AI

AI experts from the University of Waikato continue to make the lives of everyday New…

These coastal wetlands are located a few miles north of Lincoln City, Oregon, USA.

Earth to reach temperature tipping point in 20-30 years, new study finds

Earth’s ability to absorb carbon emissions through plants could be halved within the next two…

Kura Paul Burke

Using cabbage tree to grow Kaimoana – science through a Mātauranga Māori lens

Tauranga-based Associate Professor Kura Paul-Burke is passionate about scientific research through a Mātauranga (Māori Knowledge)…

Waikato Masters graduate and biosecurity champion dives into new role

Yanika Te Paea Reiter (Ngāi Tūhoe) graduated with a Master of Science (Research) in Biological…

By declaring a climate emergency Jacinda Ardern needs to inspire hope, not fear

There is no question that we must act, and act fast, on climate change. This…

Bruce and Bev Clarkson

Kudos for life’s work

A University of Waikato academic has been recognised along with his wife for a lifetime…

New Zealand forest atmosphere

University of Waikato researchers to uncover secrets of our planet

Three University of Waikato-led projects will unearth new knowledge of our natural environment after receiving…

Iain White and Neil Quigley

University of Waikato joins international Climate Alliance

The University of Waikato has joined an international coalition of around 50 of the world’s…

Rangi Matamua

2020 Callaghan Medal: “A conduit between traditional Māori knowledge and modern Science”

Professor Rangi Matamua (Tūhoe) has been awarded the Callaghan Medal from Royal Society Te Apārangi…

Dr Alexis Marshall

Early career researcher awarded Rutherford Fellowship to investigate blooming Didymo

Does the dreaded Didymo bloom because of climate change, new environments or a genetic variant?…

Bee on flower in grasslands

More plant diversity means less pesticide for agriculture

Increasing plant diversity naturally controls plant-eating insects in grasslands, according to a study led by…

University of Waikato marine scientist awarded women’s global fellowship in climate change

Dr Shari Gallop, a marine environmental scientist and University of Waikato Senior Lecturer based in…