Sep 10, 2020

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week we look at fires and the future of forests, COVID-19 and antibiotic resistance, new black corals and more.

🖥 Join Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Dave Lawler tomorrow at 12:30pm ET for a live, virtual event on U.S. foreign policy in the post-pandemic world. Register here.

Today's newsletter is 1,699 words, a 6.5-minute read.

1 big thing: Wildfires are fueling forest changes

Burned trees on Sept. 8 in Fresno County, Calif. Photo: Kent Nishimura/LA Times via Getty Images

Severe wildfires in the American West may already be altering the future of forests there.

The big picture: Fires are catalyzing changes in forests already under pressure from climate change. Scientists are trying to determine how forests are responding and whether they can be rebuilt to withstand future fires and combat climate change.

Driving the news: California has now seen the highest number of acres — about 2.5 million — burned in a single season on modern record. And the season still has several months to go.

  • More problematic, though, is that recent fires are increasingly severe, completely burning larger numbers of trees, and expanding rapidly, says climate scientist Daniel Swain of the University of California, Los Angeles.
  • The Bear Fire in Northern California grew by an estimated 230,000 acres in just 24 hours this week.
  • Strong offshore winds arrived on Tuesday morning, further increasing the risk of rapid fire spread.
  • "Things could get worse before they get better, especially in California, Oregon and Washington. The rainy season in California is at least a couple months out, and offshore wind season is just beginning and is early and it could last through November," Swain says.

What's happening: A potent mix of climate change and dense forests — the latter partially the product of nearly a century of fire suppression — is resulting in an abundance of drier vegetation that can fuel fires.

  • The window for fires is increasing as the fire season lengthens, starting earlier in the spring with premature snowmelt and stretching longer into the fall due to a delayed rainy season.
  • And within that window, the frequency of autumn days in California with extreme fire weather more than doubled since the early 1980s, according to a recent analysis by Swain.
  • More dense, dry fuel means more severe fires with trees — and their seeds — burning in their entirety.
  • And more land is burning and viable seeds from areas that don’t burn can’t be dispersed far enough to recolonize large areas.

One result: Fewer forests are naturally reestablishing after fires.

  • A recent study of forests in the Southern Rocky Mountains projects this trend will continue, even under an unlikely scenario where carbon emissions are significantly curbed during the next 20 years.

"We need to talk more about how to reforest these areas that burn in megafires," says forest ecologist Julia Burton of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

  • Reforestation efforts should include planting lower tree densities but also pattern-planting seedlings in widely spaced clumps so there is less continuity of fuels to carry fires, she says, adding that the composition of species replanted is key as well.
  • "You could make climate change worse if you plant the wrong forest in the wrong place. You could make fires worse if you plant the wrong forest in the wrong place," Swain says.

But climate change itself is affecting what types of trees can be established and where after fires.

  • "In the Western U.S. where there is significant drying, the potential land area where you could support trees is dwindling because of climate change," says Matthew Hurteau, who studies the effects of climate change and fire on forests at the University of New Mexico.
  • "The range of climatic conditions a mature tree can tolerate is much wider than a seedling or juvenile," he says. "If wildfire comes through and kills off mature trees, you can’t get the same species to establish because it is too dry and warm."

What to watch: Replanting trees is expensive — about $500–$1,000 an acre (the Camp Fire of 2018 would cost about $75 million to reforest). It takes several years for the seedlings to be grown in nurseries and lots of labor for them to be planted.

  • DroneSeed, which works with the Nature Conservancy, timber companies, small private landowners and others, is trying to scale such efforts by dropping seeds housed in vessels from large drones, which allows them to plant large areas faster.

The bottom line: "When we’re going to plant trees, our goal and question should be what is the right tree and the right place for the year 2100," Hurteau says. "And the answer may be no tree."

2. Pandemic "explosion" of antibiotic resistance not seen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Despite concerns over antimicrobial resistance flourishing during the pandemic as doctors use all their tools to help patients fight COVID-19, early indications are that their efforts may not be causing a large increase, a CDC official tells Eileen.

Why it matters: AMR is a growing problem, as the misuse of antibiotics creates resistant pathogens that cause more than 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths annually in the U.S., and are projected to kill up to 10 million people per year globally by 2050.

What's happening: COVID-19 presents "the perfect storm" for AMR infections due to the longer hospital stays (averaging 8.4 days) and intrusive treatments, says Arjun Srinivasan, CDC’s associate director for Healthcare Associated Infection Prevention Programs.

  • An analysis found 72% of COVID-19 patients received antibiotics that only 8% needed, meaning the "potential for a surge in AMR following this pandemic is real," Admiral Brett P. Giroir, assistant secretary for health, pointed out at a meeting this week of a presidential advisory council for AMR.
  • But new early data found that while antibiotic use remains up overall — and remains a concern — it has fallen from its uptick in March and April without a huge boost in AMR yet.

The latest: Preliminary CDC data about antibiotic usage during part of the pandemic, comparing some COVID-19 patients this year to some with influenza-like illnesses (ILI) last year, found ...

  • No clear evidence COVID-19 patients are more susceptible to bacteria and fungus infections than the ILI patients.
  • The number of COVID-19 patients with highly resistant organisms were not much higher than ILI patients, but "sporadic outbreaks" and more hospital-acquired infections were reported.
  • One exception was finding more ESBLs, a bacteria-produced enzyme that can break down antibiotics, in COVID-19 patients — 43% higher.
  • The largest AMR concern — MRSA — was 7% lower in COVID-19 patients.

The bottom line: "We were all kind of very worried that we would see this explosion in antibiotic resistance ... [but] pleasantly surprised to see that while there are clearly patients with COVID who developed resistant infections, we didn't see them in the huge numbers that I think many people had feared," Srinivasan says.

Read more

3. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

"New coronavirus infections fell by almost 13% over the past week — a significant improvement," Axios' Sam Baker reports this morning.

Opioid-related fatalities are increasing during the pandemic, per the Wall Street Journal, intensifying an existing crisis.

AstraZeneca halted a trial of its COVID-19 vaccine, one of nine in the world currently in Phase III clinical trials, after a participant in the U.K. "experienced neurological symptoms consistent with a rare but serious spinal inflammatory disorder called transverse myelitis," Adam Feuerstein of STAT News reported.

Obesity's link to developing severe COVID-19 is coming into "sharper focus as large new population studies have cemented the association and demonstrated that even people who are merely overweight are at higher risk," Meredith Wadman writes for Science.

4. Better ways to use — and measure — AI in medicine

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A group of newly published studies outlines how artificial intelligence can be used to improve care in hospitals and enhance clinical trials, Axios' Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: Patients stand to benefit hugely from the use of AI in medicine, but only if there is solid evidence the interventions work — and it can be done without introducing errors or compromising privacy.

What's happening: In a paper published Wednesday in Nature, researchers from Stanford University reviewed the field of "ambient intelligence" — the use of hospitals and homes that employ sensors and AI to improve patient care.

  • They note that as many as 400,000 Americans die each year because of medical errors, many of which could be prevented with smart sensors that alert doctors and caregivers when things are going wrong — or when they're making mistakes.
  • As infrared sensors get cheaper and more ubiquitous, they can be used for everything from detecting whether visitors have washed their hands upon entering a hospital room to alerting doctors when patients are writhing beneath bedsheets.

Yes, but: One challenge in determining the effectiveness of AI in medicine has been the quality of the research itself.

  • A paper published last year found less than 1% of 20,500 studies of AI in health care were good enough for independent readers to have confidence in their conclusions.
  • Now in a pair of studies published Wednesday, researchers laid out the first international standards for the reporting of clinical trials for AI.
  • The rules specifically call on researchers to indicate how AI studies handle poor-quality or unavailable data, as well as how involved humans are in supposedly AI solutions.

Go deeper: Artificial journalism gets a trial run

5. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The hunt for dark matter expands (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

Why do you feel lonely? Neuroscience is starting to find answers. (Adam Piore — MIT Tech Review)

Another sweeping search for aliens comes up short (George Dvorsky — Gizmodo)

The controversial company using DNA to sketch the faces of criminals (Carrie Arnold — Nature)

6. Something wondrous

Black coral at 1,200 meters depth on Cairns Seamount. Photo: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Black corals are found in all of the planet's oceans, but most species live between 50 and 8,600 meters, far out of the reach of scuba divers.

Driving the news: A recent expedition in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor discovered new species of the understudied fauna.

  • Using a remotely operated underwater robot, the researchers were able to retrieve tissue samples from the black corals. Before robotic vehicles, coral samples were collected by trawling that yielded little tissue for genomic analysis.

How it works: Unlike hard corals made of calcium carbonate, black corals have skeletons consisting of protein laid down in concentric rings. (They rarely appear black in the ocean because of the tiny, colored polyps that cover them.)

  • The slow-growing corals can live for thousands of years: A deep-sea black coral, Leiopathes, found in Hawai'i was determined to be 4,265 years old.

The intrigue: Long-living black corals don't seem to develop tumors, says Mercer Brugler, a marine biologist at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort.

  • "How do you live thousands of years and not develop cancer?" he says, adding that he is interested in looking at the corals for potential medical applications.

The big picture: Marine life has long-contributed to biomedicine and biotechnology, including fluorescent proteins from jellyfish for tracking molecules in cells and the blood of Atlantic horseshoe crabs for endotoxin testing.

  • Remdesivir, an antiviral used to treat COVID-19, is derived from a compound found in marine sponges.
Alison Snyder