‘There is no textbook’: Biochem course confronts the climate challenge

A novel course shows Yale undergrads that all climate-related problems can be viewed through the lens of biochemistry — and challenges them to find solutions.
Karla Neugebauer

In her course “Biochemistry and Our Changing Climate,” Yale’s Karla Neugebauer introduces case studies related to climate change through the eyes of a biochemist — and challenges the undergraduates to think about how the principles of biochemistry might yield climate solutions. (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

Typically, the students who enroll in Karla Neugebauer’s undergraduate classes are interested in examining life at the molecular level.

But during a recent seminar discussion, Neugebauer, a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and of cell biology at Yale, asked a group of students to think at a larger scale, too, and in multiple dimensions: What are some of the ideal material properties you’d need, she asked, if you were constructing a building?

Specifically, she wanted the group to consider the kinds of materials and processes that would be necessary to create buildings in a way that produces lower carbon emissions — or, for that matter, that might actually remove carbon from the atmosphere, benefitting human and planetary health alike.

During the discussion — part of Neugebauer’s course “Biochemistry and Our Changing Climate” (MB&B 365/565) — she introduced some relevant examples from the world of architecture, including the use of timber-based wood products espoused by Alan Organschi of the Yale School of Architecture. The emerging technology, she told the group, could not only drastically reduce the emissions required to meet the surging global demand for buildings but make the cities of the future “carbon sinks.”

She also reviewed the creation of sturdy, sustainable bricks for construction embedded with living materials — including fungi and Cyanobacteria — that could offer alternatives to concrete, and promising new processes in enzyme engineering that produce more sustainable building materials, such as clear, renewable polymers for windows that store carbon instead of the current carbon-expensive method that makes windows from sand.

Underlying all these advances are the basics of biochemistry.

And that’s, really, the focus of the course, which Neugebauer first offered in the fall of 2021. The course illustrates that while most biochemical research today focuses on human health — and most biochemists see their own work in the context of disease — insights into the building blocks of life can also be harnessed to address the climate challenge, whether it’s protein engineering that can help produce planet-friendly materials, enzymes that help degrade plastics, alternative foods that can replace beef, or chemical modulators that target insects carrying zoonotic diseases.

At a certain point it occurred to me that every discipline has a role in combating climate change,” said Neugebauer, of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Yale School of Medicine. “Poets and songwriters can help us emotionally to be courageous. And biochemistry offers a way of thinking about biology and the molecules that support the living world that can offer important insights.”

Teaching biochemistry, she says, doesn’t necessarily reveal “translational ways of saving the planet,” the way, say, working in engineering or policy might. It’s a discipline, a way of thinking, with a lot of history and a lot of knowledge one must learn to become an expert.

But, armed with that expertise, one could conceive of solutions for the planet,” she says. “In each class I’m not telling students how they can save the world. I don’t know!

My course isn’t for engineers,” she added. “It’s for people who are interested in biochemistry. And it’s for them to see possibilities for themselves.”

Students enrolled in “MB&B 365/565” during a class this semester.
Students enrolled in “MB&B 365/565” during a class this semester. “One of the reasons I was so drawn to this class is that not only are we talking about the challenges of climate change, but we’re talking about the solutions,” said one student. (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

Almost all problems are chemical problems’

During each class session Neugebauer introduces case studies on particular issues related to climate change and asks students to contemplate them through the eyes of a biochemist.

In one session she discussed the novel discovery that cows living in western Canada were found to produce less methane because they’d eaten red algae from the sea, a potentially key insight since beef production generates far greater carbon and methane emissions than any other food production process. While people in other fields are exploring how one might deliver more of the same red algae to more cows (and thus reduce global methane emissions), a biochemist asks other questions. What’s the molecular mechanism behind this phenomenon? Is there a molecule or set of molecules in the red algae that kills the gut bacteria producing the methane? Or is the molecular compound instead serving as an inhibitor of methanogenesis (a biochemical pathway that generates methane) in that bacterium? Could scientists develop a chemical cocktail that could be delivered broadly and economically to all cows?

On other days the class has explored findings that molecules in smoke promote plant growth (knowledge that might be useful for helping forest systems recover after fires); the amino acid synthesis reactions inhibited by the common pesticide Roundup; and the biochemical factors that cause coral bleaching. (Although most people know that coral bleaching is caused by rising sea temperatures, it is less commonly understood that it’s the algal symbionts inside the coral that experience a stress response and secrete hydrogen peroxide, causing coral tissue to expel them; this starves the coral tissue, which relies on the algal symbionts to produce their food.)

As Neugebauer says, the implications of all these phenomena are easier to understand — and possibly address — once you know which molecules are involved.

There is no other course like this and there is no textbook,” said Neugebauer, an expert in RNA biology who came to Yale in 2013. “These are tentacles being extended between predicted and observed changes in the living world — like salt pH and temperature, fire, pollution, et cetera — and biochemical principles.”

While these connections might be clear, she’s not aware of any class being offered anywhere that explores climate change through the lens of biochemistry. Other classes Neugebauer teaches include MB&B 301 (the second semester of undergraduate biochemistry for majors) and MB&B 449 (“Medical Impacts of Basic Science”).

For the Yale College students enrolled in the course, the questions it has raised are appealing and inspiring.

I’ve taken a lot of science classes where there are very, very detailed discussions about the mechanisms of a biochemical molecule or research about a specific way this molecule functions,” said Yaya Guo, a junior who is studying molecular biophysics and biochemistry and economics. “Sometimes you say, ‘OK, that’s cool, but what do you do with that information?’ This class really reminds you that almost all problems are actually chemical problems.”

After learning about the course, editors of the open access journal BBA Advances invited the class to submit a manuscript on the lessons it reveals. So Neugebauer assigned the students to collaborate on an article in which they will address five questions about how principles of biochemistry can be used to combat climate change. All of the students will be listed as co-authors.

One of the reasons I was so drawn to this class is that not only are we talking about the challenges of climate change, but we’re talking about the solutions,” said Katherine Moon, another Yale junior enrolled in the class. “This makes me feel really hopeful.”

A group of Yale students in t-shirts promoting bird-safe windows on campus
In April, the class visited East Rock Park to collect moss samples containing tardigrades, eight-legged invertebrates also known as water bears. In an experiment, they soaked the moss in water, after which some tardigrades emerged from a desiccated state, Neugebauer said, illustrating how organisms can survive in extreme temperatures. (The students wore t-shirts promoting bird-friendly architecture.)

What role can biochemists play?

Offering hope and inspiration in the face of a global crisis is the reason Neugebauer started the course. She remembers the devastation and helplessness she felt when, during a vacation in the Australian Outback in 2006, she happened to read an article about the region’s horrific future absent aggressive climate action. A few years later, she remembers, her grown son and his friend tried to convince her that in light of the planet’s ongoing climate catastrophe, the only fields worth pursuing were engineering and policy.

This drove Neugebauer to consider the role biochemists might play in addressing the crisis. At Yale, she realized, she had a platform for exploring possibilities. And she had an opportunity to drive home that the climate fight is one everyone should be part of — and to inspire students to discover solutions.

Young people are terrified by the climate crisis, Neugebauer said, and they are looking for ways to address it, regardless of their primary academic focus. She thinks every department at Yale — whether it’s chemistry, or statistics, or English, or philosophy — should offer similar courses with “climate change” in the title.

I think that 17-year-olds would be comforted to know that the generation ahead of them has buy-in and is willing to help them rather than hearing, ‘Hey, 17- and 18-year-olds, you figure it out.’ Why don’t we do something to help them imagine how they can participate in the solution? I think that’s a role that education has.”

About half the students enrolled in “Biochemistry and Our Changing Climate” this semester plan to go to medical school.

As a health professional, it is so valuable to be able to have the knowledge of the chemistry behind so many of the health problems that arise from climate change, and just the overall knowledge of climate change,” said Sasha Wood, a junior enrolled in the class who will attend Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai after graduation.

For Katherine Moon, who also aspires to a career in medicine, studying the planetary costs of climate change has almost felt like studying human biology. “You would think that studying climate and ecology would be so complex, and it would be so hard to tackle it,” she said. “But when you delve into the biochemistry of it, the biochemistry rules apply the same everywhere on Earth. [Addressing the challenges] is almost like developing a pharmaceutical for the world. It feels totally doable.”

One of the benefits of the course, added Deborah Arul, who is studying molecular biophysics & biochemistry and sociology, is that it really gets down to the chemical basics of climate change — whether it’s the causes or potential solutions. Unlike many science classes, she said, there are opportunities to explore social considerations — for instance, why the low cost of producing certain plastics make them ubiquitous in the environment. “But then you get right back to the biochemical solutions,” she said. “You don’t get lost in the debate.”

For Lilijana Oliver, a Yale College senior who enrolled in the course this spring, part of what has stood out during these discussions is just how relevant these molecular truths are to just about every challenge associated with climate change.

If you keep asking these broad questions, and you keep asking ‘why?’” she said, “you eventually get to biochemistry.”

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