How did life on Earth begin? This was a seemingly unsurmountable question scientists and philosophers sought to answer for hundreds of years. From a scientific perspective, little real progress was made until a landmark experiment was undertaken in 1953. Stanley Miller, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, tried to recreate the conditions on early lifeless Earth, with an atmosphere full of simple gases and laced with lightning storms. He filled a flask with water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen and sent sparks of electricity through them. The result, both literally and figuratively, was like a bolt of lightning. When Miller looked at the resultant samples collected from the flask, he found five different amino acids – the building blocks of proteins and essential components of life. Eureka!
As a superb footnote to this story, Miller continued with his experiments for a number of years, varying the gas mixes, modifying his apparatus and developing his techniques. But for some reason, he never finished. He dutifully collected his samples and stored them in vials, but he did not analyse the contents. The vials languished in obscurity, but being the meticulous scientist he was, they were never thrown away. However, in 1999, Miller suffered a stroke and bequeathed his old equipment, archives and notebooks to one of his former students, Jeffrey Bada. It took until 2007 for Bada to realise the historical importance what he had inherited, whereupon he asked one of his students to analyse the contents of the vials. Amazingly – some half a century after the experiments originally took place – this process revealed 23 different amino acids had been synthesised by Miller. Double eureka?
Well, not quite. It proved much more challenging to synthesise ribonucleotides – the building blocks of RNA and DNA – in Miller-type experiments, but this was subsequently observed. Now, if we combine amino acids with nucleotides, it is not too far an evolutionary journey to arrive at a virus – the topic du jour for us all.
What is a virus and how is the current pandemic linked to sustainability?
As many of you have learned in recent weeks – a virus generally consists of some genetic code, enclosed in a protein coat that may also shelter viral proteins involved in infection. By this description, a virus seems more like a chemistry set than an organism. Indeed, viruses are thought of as being in a grey area between living and non-living things. However, when a virus enters a cell it bursts into life, shedding its coat and baring its genes to the host.
You and I can be infected by a virus, as can plants, bacteria, sheep, pigs, chickens, monkeys, bats etc. Viruses are parasites, reliant on their hosts for survival and reproduction. They evolve to infect their reservoir host, i.e. a pig virus will keep infecting pigs, but periodically, a virus can jump from one animal host to humans – sometimes via an intermediate host. This process is known as zoonosis.
There are numerous cases of this. For example, between 1998 and 1999 the Nipah virus, never before linked to human disease, originally caused the deaths of a number of pig farmers in peninsula Malaysia. Investigation revealed this agent of infection was found in a native fruit bat; but how had the virus left its reservoir host to infect the human population? Scientists discovered deforestation – principally for palm oil production – and resultant habitat loss, had damaged local ecosystems. The native fruit bats were being forced out of their natural environment and looking further afield for food. In this case, the bats fed from fruit trees in very close proximity to pig farms and through natural processes contaminated the land where the pigs searched for food. The pigs became amplifier hosts and eventually passed the virus on to farmers and abattoir workers, resulting in further transmission and eventual outbreak.
We currently find ourselves in a global health crisis. However, when we get through this, it will be important to reflect on how human health and the health of our planet are connected. In the case of COVID-19, speculation about how the virus transferred to humans and which animal was the source has become a media fascination. However, the contribution to the crisis made by the accelerating pace of habitat loss is less of a focus. Moreover, as our infographic illustrates, deforestation is not the only catalyst for zoonosis; poorly regulated wildlife trade, intensive farming and the associated overuse of antibiotics are all identified contributors too.
Annually, it is estimated the 7.8bn human inhabitants on Earth currently consume 50bn chickens, 1.5bn cattle, 1.5bn pigs and 0.5bn sheep. The United Nations forecast the global population will reach 9.8bn by 2050; think of the further deforestation and loss of habitat across Asia, Latin America (accelerating in Brazil even through this crisis) and Africa required to meet the animal protein demands of this additional 2bn people. Further zoonotic-based pandemics would appear an inevitability.
Planetary health and sustainable investing
COVID-19 has given us a glimpse into a global economy decimated by crisis. The current levels of environmental and economic disruption could become the new reality, if we don't use this crisis as a catalyst to rewire the global economic system. Key to this is having a suitable framework to analyse and evaluate what activities contribute negatively or positively to the world’s sustainability.
Academics from Stockholm University have proposed using quantitative ‘planetary boundaries’ within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.
Source: Stockholm University, credit: J. Lokrantz/Azote based on Steffen et al. 2015
Since the planetary boundaries framework was published, it has generated enormous interest within science and public policy – but it is increasingly being recognised as an important factor likely to drive capital market returns in the future. Nine key dimensions have been defined; water, climate change, biodiversity, land-use, the nitrogen & phosphorous cycle, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. Investors are able to relate the boundaries to sub-industries and to individual companies. This enables an understanding of how a company’s products and services, taken over the entire life cycle, impact on the nine dimensions. This leads to an assessment of whether a company’s activities lie within the safe operating space and whether its business model is forfeited or favoured by stricter environmental constraints.
Such an approach is investable and we do so via our allocation to Pictet Global Environmental Opportunities. This fund, held in our Sustainable Strategy, commits long-term capital to companies that are active throughout the environmental value chain; resulting in a diversified exposure to the infrastructure, technology and business services sectors.
As a team we hope that the causes and outcomes of zoonosis become better understood. Unlike Stanley Miller’s research, we cannot wait decades to analyse the results – we need our own eureka moment now. The global community must wake up to the unintentional consequences of our environmental experiment on human health.
Please do contact us with any questions
Julia Warrander and Russell Waite
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