"To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” – Aldo Leopold
The U.S. National Park Service′s upcoming decision about whether to restore the wolves of Isle Royale is one of the most important decisions our society faces. Seriously. Hear me out.
One of the longest running experiments in wildlife management history is about to end at Isle Royale National Park. The number of wolves has dwindled down to three, with the likelihood of them successfully breeding near zero. In fact, one of the three—a pup—is so physically disabled from genetic inbreeding that it may not live another year, leaving the last two to stalk the 200-square-mile island like lonely, sterile humans in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The U.S. Park Service is considering a decision about what to do—should they restore the wolves by trapping a pack or two on the mainland in Minnesota and shipping them over to the Isle Royale? Or should they let the wolves die out as an experiment in wilderness management?
I don’t blame the Park Service for initially dawdling on this issue. Twenty years ago I wrote my PhD about this exact question at Isle Royale. I called it a “conundrum,” which is defined as a “confusing and difficult question." Here’s why: A small pack of wolves migrated across an ice bridge over to Isle Royale in northern Lake Superior back in the 1940s and started feeding on moose that had swum over to the island and proliferated forty years earlier. Over the years, the number of wolves cycled between a dozen or so and up to 30 at times, as the dance of predator and prey tangoed across the remote wilderness island. Moose numbers also cycled, as did the vegetation moose ate.
The Park Service manages Isle Royale officially as a “wilderness area,” a place that cannot be touched by people so as to retain its natural, non-human ecology and character. So you can see why the Park Service has dawdled on this issue—after all, what is “wilderness” if we reintroduce the top predator and manipulate the entire ecosystem?
A few years before I considered this topic as my PhD, a writer named Bill McKibben wrote a book titled The End of Nature that now plays a leading role in this Isle Royale story. McKibben’s premise was that, due to climate change, humans have now so completely changed the planet that what we think of as “authentic nature” or “wilderness” no longer exists. Unfortunately, Bill was dead right. It’s all a human-created environment now, one that looks increasingly likely to play out in the most negative ways for our species as well as for the non-human world including the wolves on Isle Royale.
Climate change is real, is happening right now and is happening on Isle Royale. Specifically, the temperatures of northern Minnesota, Isle Royale, and surrounding Lake Superior are warming up. The ice bridge the wolves ran across is occurring less often each winter, and as climate change progresses, the ice bridge is less likely to occur or may not occur at all in the future.
Stated differently, Isle Royale is not a wilderness anymore—nor is any place on Earth. We humans are now managing everything, and whether we realize it or not, by creating and refusing to stop climate change, we have managed and created the wolf extermination on Isle Royale. The wolves of Isle Royale are not dying; we are killing them.
Further, ecologists and conservation biologists that study climate change are considering these types of problems all over the planet. As the climate warms, millions of species around the globe are increasingly at risk. Not just polar bears in the Arctic and coral reefs in the Caribbean, but every critter and ecosystem that dances across this earth is now imperiled by the grave certainty of the changing climate we have created.
About the same time—in the late 1940s—that wolves migrated to Isle Royale, another local character in the north woods named Aldo Leopold wrote a book titled The Sand County Almanac. Leopold was a visionary ecologist and his book is now an international classic. He argued that when you are dissembling and tinkering with any mechanism, you always keep all the parts so you can put it back together again, and that the argument is equally true for when humans manipulate nature too.
That’s why I advocate for the immediate restoration of wolves to Isle Royale National Park, an option the Park Service is considering which they call “genetic rescue.” Our society is on a breakneck course to change the climate and imperil our very life support system. Faced with this apocalypse, smart people should be investing in and keeping all the pieces of our former biologically diverse environment—every critter and every ecosystem—as intact as possible to be as resilient as possible in the face of the dramatic uncertainty climate change will bring.
Accordingly, the National Park Service can help play one of the greatest roles in the history of the U.S. by protecting, restoring and genetically rescuing the biological diversity in the parks across America including the wolves of Isle Royale.
Are we zombie exterminators? Or are we intelligent tinkerers?
To tell the Park Service to save the wolves at Isle Royale, contact Superintendent Phyllis Green at Phyllis_Green@nps.gov or call her at 906-487-7140.
Gary Wockner is an environmental advocate and writer based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. 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The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. 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A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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