The Debate Over Oak Trees: A Complex Nexus Between Air Quality and Environmental Health

by Henrik Andersen
8 comments
Isoprene and Environmental Impact

A recent investigation brings to light the multifaceted interaction between oak trees and their environmental impact. In the context of global warming, certain plants including oaks release increased amounts of isoprene, a compound with a dual role: it both deteriorates and improves air quality while fortifying the plants against stressors. Researchers advocate that addressing nitrogen oxide pollution is a more effective solution than reducing the number of such trees.

The question at the forefront is seemingly straightforward yet loaded with implications: “Should we eliminate all oak trees?” This question was posed by Tom Sharkey, a distinguished professor at Michigan State University’s Plant Resilience Institute. Sharkey also holds positions at the MSU Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Sharkey’s query was not a genuine call to action for the eradication of oak trees, but rather a meaningful prompt triggered by his team’s newly published research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their study found that as the planet continues to warm, specific plants like oaks and poplars are likely to emit greater quantities of isoprene, which negatively impacts air quality by contributing to harmful particulate matter and ground-level ozone. However, the same compound also aids in purifying clean air and enhances the plants’ resilience to environmental stresses.

“The real questions are about finding an optimal balance between the positive and negative effects of isoprene emissions,” Sharkey noted. “As we gain more knowledge, we’ll be better positioned to address these critical issues.”

Focusing on Isoprene

Sharkey’s academic exploration of isoprene goes back to the 1970s when he was a doctoral student at Michigan State University. Isoprene is the second most emitted hydrocarbon on the planet, surpassed only by methane emissions originating from human activities.

Isoprene’s interaction with nitrogen oxide compounds—found in pollution from sources like coal-fired power plants and automobile engines—results in the formation of ozone, aerosols, and other harmful byproducts that are detrimental to both human health and plant vitality.

“Air that has moved across an urban area, collecting nitrogen oxides, often becomes even more polluted as it traverses a forest,” Sharkey commented.

Presently, with backing from the National Science Foundation, Sharkey’s team is concentrating on understanding the biochemical processes behind isoprene production, especially in relation to environmental variables like climate change.

Before this recent publication, it was already known that isoprene production is affected by competing environmental factors—increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide tend to reduce its rate, whereas rising temperatures augment it. The team sought to determine which effect would ultimately dominate.

According to Abira Sahu, the lead author of the study, they were able to identify the specific chemical reaction slowed by elevated levels of carbon dioxide. “Temperature increase nullifies the suppressive effect of carbon dioxide on isoprene emissions,” Sharkey stated.

In their experiments using poplar plants, the researchers observed a more than tenfold increase in isoprene emission when a leaf’s temperature was raised by 10 degrees Celsius, noted Sahu.

The findings are instrumental in predicting future isoprene emissions and preparing for their ramifications. However, they also serve to guide the decisions made by communities and individuals.

Institutions like MSU, home to more than 20,000 trees, might consider planting fewer oaks to control isoprene levels. As for existing trees, Sharkey proposes a different course of action: “A more effective approach would be to better manage nitrogen oxide pollution.”

Reference: “Hydroxymethylbutenyl diphosphate accumulation reveals MEP pathway regulation for high CO2-induced suppression of isoprene emission” by Abira Sahu, Mohammad Golam Mostofa, Sarathi M. Weraduwage, and Thomas D. Sharkey, published on 2 October 2023 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2309536120

Contributors to the research also include Sarathi Weraduwage, a former postdoctoral researcher in Sharkey’s lab, who is currently an assistant professor at Bishop’s University in Quebec.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Isoprene and Environmental Impact

What is the primary focus of the research conducted by Tom Sharkey and his team?

The research primarily focuses on the complex relationship between oak trees and their environmental impact, particularly concerning the emission of isoprene. The study aims to understand how increased levels of this compound can both improve and deteriorate air quality, especially in the context of a warming planet.

Who is Tom Sharkey, and what are his affiliations?

Tom Sharkey is a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University’s Plant Resilience Institute. He also holds positions at the MSU Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

What is isoprene, and why is it significant in the research?

Isoprene is a compound emitted by certain plants like oaks and poplars. The research finds that isoprene has a dual role; it can deteriorate air quality by contributing to harmful particulate matter and ground-level ozone, but it also aids in purifying clean air and enhances the plants’ resilience to environmental stresses.

What are the potential implications of increased isoprene emissions?

Increased emissions of isoprene could lead to worsened air quality, particularly contributing to problematic particulate matter and ground-level ozone. However, these emissions also make plants more resistant to environmental stressors like high temperatures and insects.

What are the competing effects of rising temperatures and increased carbon dioxide levels on isoprene production?

Rising temperatures tend to increase the rate of isoprene emission, while elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere tend to suppress it. The research sought to identify which of these effects would dominate and found that the temperature effect nullifies the suppressive impact of carbon dioxide.

What is the suggested course of action to manage isoprene emissions?

Rather than reducing the number of oak trees, Tom Sharkey suggests a more effective approach would be to better manage nitrogen oxide pollution. This is because isoprene interacts with nitrogen oxide compounds, leading to air pollution.

Who are the other contributors to this research?

Contributors to the research include Abira Sahu, the lead author of the study, and Mohammad Golam Mostofa, both of whom are part of Sharkey’s research group. Sarathi Weraduwage, a former postdoctoral researcher in Sharkey’s lab, who is now an assistant professor at Bishop’s University in Quebec, also contributed to the research.

What are the key findings of the research?

The key findings include the identification of the specific chemical reaction slowed by elevated levels of carbon dioxide and the observation that a temperature increase of 10 degrees Celsius led to a more than tenfold increase in isoprene emission from poplar plants.

Where was the research published?

The research was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 2 October 2023.

What are the long-term goals of this research?

The long-term goals are to better understand the biochemical processes behind isoprene production and to guide communities and individuals in making informed decisions about managing isoprene levels and thereby improving air quality.

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8 comments

Kevin Miller October 7, 2023 - 2:07 pm

So let me get this straight. Global warming makes the trees emit more stuff that’s bad, but also good? Man, nature’s complicated. We better listen to these scientists if we want to get anywhere.

Reply
Robert O'Connor October 7, 2023 - 4:59 pm

Kinda surprised that trees can be both good and bad for the environment. I guess its all about balance. Sharkey’s on to something here, should focus more on controlling pollution from other sources maybe.

Reply
John Smith October 7, 2023 - 7:55 pm

Wow, never knew trees could be this complicated. Isoprene, huh? What a double-edged sword. We’re lookin at clean air but also pollution at the same time. Tough call on what to do.

Reply
Emily Williams October 8, 2023 - 1:47 am

Sharkey’s research is pretty eye-opening. I mean, who’d have thought the earth warming up could have such a domino effect. It’s not just about melting ice, people!

Reply
Sara Davis October 8, 2023 - 2:44 am

interesting how Sharkey talks bout nitrogen oxide pollution as a solution. Seems like we should be looking at the bigger picture and not just cutting down trees, right?

Reply
Laura Johnson October 8, 2023 - 5:11 am

The fact that Sharkey has been studying this since the 70s is mind-blowing! The guy knows what he’s talking about. This research can’t be ignored, it’s gotta be part of the climate change conversation.

Reply
Tina Brown October 8, 2023 - 10:50 am

Always thought trees were just good, full stop. But looks like we gotta be smart about which trees we plant where. And that nitrogen oxide thing, never even considered it.

Reply
Mike Anderson October 8, 2023 - 11:47 am

Whoa. So air quality downwind of a city can be worse than in the city? thats wild. We gotta think bout how everything is connected.

Reply

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