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    Microbial miners take on rare-earth metals

    A sample of lanthanum (iii) nitrate under the microscope.Credit: Christian Wei/Zoonar/Alamy

    The fermented drink kombucha seems about as far away as possible from the mining of heavy metals. But Alexa Schmitz, chief executive at the biomining company REEgen in Ithaca, New York, sees parallels between her firm’s bacteria-based product and the tangy beverage.REEgen’s bacterial ‘soup’ dissolves ground-up rocks, waste electronic components and other solids that contain rare-earth elements — metals that have valuable conductive, magnetic and fluorescent properties and that are used in everything from mobile phones to wind turbines. The metals impart strength and hardness to alloys, for example, and are found in superconductors and catalytic converters. But Schmitz notes that the company’s product is much less hazardous, both to people and to the environment, than are the chemicals typically used to separate metals from ore. “We’re producing a solution that is proving to be about as good as concentrated nitric acid at dissolving solids,” says Schmitz. “But it’s a little bit like kombucha. You can stick your hand in a vat of it and come out unscathed.”Rare-earth elements include those in the lanthanide series — those with atomic numbers from 58 to 71, usually shown as a pop-out beneath the main periodic table — as well as the group 3 transition metals scandium and yttrium. They are used in products such as magnets, light bulbs and electric cars, and end up in various waste streams, including mining tailings and ash from coal plants.Despite their name, rare- earth elements (REEs) aren’t all that uncommon, but they don’t tend to be found in concentrated deposits (unlike, say, a vein of gold). Miners might have to excavate one tonne of rock just to obtain a gram of REEs, says Buz Barstow, a synthetic biologist and Schmitz’s former adviser at Cornell University in Ithaca.
    How a protein differentiates between rare-earth elements
    They’re also difficult to purify. REEs tend to co-occur in natural deposits and are chemically similar. The conventional purification process involves repeatedly separating the metals, in dozens or even hundreds of cycles, using aqueous acids and organic solvents such as kerosene. It’s inefficient, costly and damaging to health and the environment. Much of the globe’s REE separation currently takes place in China.Now, Schmitz and a small but growing cadre of researchers are investigating a possible alternative: biomining. Many microorganisms naturally concentrate metals, and some are already used to mine copper and gold. The discovery about a decade ago of microbes that use lanthanides for their metabolism1,2 allowed researchers to explore the feasibility of adapting the microorganisms or their components to isolate REEs. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, has invested around US$43 million in research–industry partnerships to develop biomining for REEs.There’s room for microbes at every step of the biomining process, says Dan Park, an environmental microbiologist and DARPA grant team member at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. For starters, many microbes secrete acids that can solubilize metals from rocks, discarded appliances and other electronic waste. Some make proteins that specifically interact with REEs, giving scientists the opportunity to isolate the elements from other metals, and perhaps even from each other.But scaling up microbe-based mining and remediation from the bench to an industrial process, in a way that would be practical and economical, involves substantial challenges.Each DARPA project on REEs, for example, has a goal that is puny by industrial standards: by 2026, the teams must to be able to purify 700 grams of material in a week. “It is really a baby step,” says Linda Chrisey, a programme manager for biological technologies at DARPA. “The most important thing is, can we do it?”Microbe minersWhatever the starting material, the first step in biomining is to grind it up and isolate the metals from everything else. Acid is often used to solubilize metals, and the acids produced by microbes are environmentally friendly, economical options. Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, for instance, zeroed in on Gluconobacter oxydans, an acid-producing bacterium found in garden soil, fruits and flowers, as a potential microbe miner. The organism has no designs on the REEs themselves, says Barstow, who also works with G. oxydans. Rather, the acid it produces dissolves phosphates that it then uses in DNA; the liberation of REEs is a collateral benefit that humans can exploit.In experiments at Idaho National Laboratory, G. oxydans secreted a gluconic acid mixture that was better at leaching rare metals from industrial waste than was a comparable concentration of commercial, pure gluconic acid3. “We think there are other things being produced besides the gluconic acid,” says Vicki Thompson, a chemical engineer at the lab.Gluconobacter oxydans has a long history in biotechnology applications and a sequenced genome that is accessible to genetic tools. Schmitz, Barstow and their colleagues tapped these tools to optimize leaching of REEs by G. oxydans. The researchers began with a gene knockout screen, disrupting 2,733 of the microbe’s non-essential genes to identify more than 100 that influence gluconic acid output4.Disruption of G. oxydans genes involved in the uptake of phosphate resulted in the microbes producing a solution that was more acidic and more effective at leaching REEs5. “We convince them they’re starving for phosphate,” explains Schmitz. Work at REEgen to combine genetically engineered G. oxydans with optimization of the firm’s processes has boosted leaching by up to five times compared with wild-type microbes, Schmitz says.Separation anxietyAfter leaching, the next step is to isolate REEs from other metals that come out in acid, such as calcium and iron. Here, some surprising biology comes to the rescue. REEs were once thought to have no direct relevance to living organisms. Then, in 2012 and 2013, researchers reported that REEs are used by certain microbes to metabolize methanol1, and are even vital to the survival of microorganisms living in volcanic mud pots in Italy2.Lanthanides, it turned out, provide essential cofactors for microbial enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases, some of which convert methanol to formaldehyde as part of metabolism. In fact, use of lanthanides as enzyme cofactors is widespread among microbes, even those that don’t eat methanol, says Cecilia Martinez-Gomez, a microbial physiologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Researchers are now adapting these microbes, or just their REE-binding molecules, to concentrate the desired elements.

    A worker walks past a stack of waste computers at a recycling yard in Accra, Ghana.Credit: Christian Thompson/Anadolu Agency/Getty

    Martinez-Gomez’s group, for instance, works with another lanthanide-using organism called Methylobacterium extorquens, which is found in a variety of locations, such as plants and the oceans. She and her team identified a set of ten M. extorquens genes6 that produces a small metal-binding molecule that the team named methylolanthanin. The microbes secrete methylolanthanin into their surroundings, where it sticks to nearby lanthanides, which are otherwise insoluble. The complex is then taken up by a microbial transporter and brought into the cell to serve as a cofactor for alcohol dehydrogenase.M. extorquens also has a system to store lanthanides for later use, saving the metals either in granules or in structures that the researchers called lanthasomes7. This, presumably, allows the bacterium to prepare for a lanthanide drought; it can stockpile enough of the metals to last for several microbial generations, says Martinez-Gomez.To improve lanthanide uptake for biomining purposes, she and her team engineered a strain of M. extorquens that allowed them to control and scale up methylolanthanin production. This more than tripled the microbes’ ability to collect neodymium and other REEs from pulverized magnets, Martinez-Gomez says. Then it’s a relatively simple matter of breaking open the cell and precipitating the lanthanides. The process results in REEs that are more than 98.8% pure, says Martinez-Gomez, who co-founded a company, RareTerra in Berkeley, to commercialize accumulation and separation of lanthanides by M. extorquens.The bacterium has also yielded a tool that has become key to the burgeoning field of rare-earth biomining. Discovered in 2018, lanmodulin is a lanthanide-binding molecule8 that sits between the two outer membranes of the bacterium, alongside the alcohol dehydrogenases that use lanthanides as a cofactor. Co-discoverer Joseph Cotruvo Jr, a biochemist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, still isn’t sure what lanmodulin does there. “We kind of got sidetracked by the interesting properties and technological applications,” he says. For example, his group, Martinez-Gomez and others are adapting parts of the protein to create luminescent and fluorescent biosensors. These could highlight where REEs are present or accumulating9,10, and might even be used to remediate REE contamination of water sources11.Lanmodulin has provided researchers with a mechanism for isolating REEs, at least at the benchtop scale. Park, a collaborator of Cotruvo’s, immobilized lanmodulin on agarose microbeads to create a column that could capture lanthanides. Starting with coal-mine ash from the northwestern United States, which contained less than 1% lanthanides overall, the team obtained a solution of 88.2% pure lanthanide12. “It was so selective that we could take really dilute, poor sources of rare earths, and selectively capture using lanmodulin,” says Park.Getting specificLanmodulin and M. extorquens are part of a small group of emerging tools for purifying REEs. Researchers have also designed lanthanide-binding peptide tags that can be encoded in a gene of interest. Originally intended to enhance X-ray crystallography and protein assays13, these are also finding applications in biomining.Researchers are studying the REE-collecting abilities of the model microbe Pseudomonas putida14 and of Methylacidiphilum fumariolicum — the species discovered in volcanic Italian mud pots15. And scientists in Germany have discovered that photosynthetic single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria can suck up REEs16 — although, as with G. oxydans, this doesn’t seem to be essential for their survival. The cyanobacteria can even absorb heavy metals into their cell walls if they’re dead, meaning that it might not be necessary to keep them alive to use them in metal purification, says biotechnologist Thomas Brück at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.
    Metal-oxide cages open up strategy for processing nuclear waste
    Whatever their source, once REEs are obtained, the most challenging step is to separate them from each other. There are 17 rare-earth metals, which are not necessarily interchangeable for commercial applications. Yet the smallest and largest lanthanide atoms differ in size by less than half an ångström. Their similarities in size and chemistry explain why the current chemical separation process is so laborious. Isolating individual REEs is “the problem that industry wants to solve the most”, says Cotruvo.Here, again, lanmodulin offers possibilities. Cotruvo and his colleagues scanned genome sequences for the most unusual lanmodulins they could find, homing in on a protein from a bacterium called Hansschlegelia quercus. It’s found on oak buds, where it can live on methanol released by the plant. Lanmodulin from H. quercus showed a preference for light lanthanides — those with atomic numbers of 62 or less — rather than for heavy ones with atomic numbers of 63 and up.Cotruvo’s group discovered that H. quercus lanmodulin distinguishes between the metals through a selective process. When the molecule encounters a light lanthanide such as neodymium or lanthanum, two lanmodulin monomers stick together to form a dimer, and do so more than 100 times more tightly than they do in the presence of a heavier lanthanide such as dysprosium. The lanmodulin protein probably doesn’t dimerize on Park’s columns, Cotruvo says, but nonetheless, that preference meant that a column of H. quercus lanmodulin could separate a mixture of neodymium and dysprosium into fractions that were more than 98% pure for each element17.“That’s really a significant breakthrough,” says Daniel Nocera, an inorganic chemist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s going down the road to selectivity.”And there are likely to be other tools out there, notes Martinez-Gomez, because microbes seem to have a wide variety of mechanisms for collecting, transporting and using lanthanides. “There are really interesting differences, so this is really a broad and emergent area of study,” she says.
    To apply these tools to mining and recycling, researchers envision a series of steps. First, they’ll remove metals from the ore or waste material, then they’ll extract lanthanides from the other metals. At that point, they might enlist H. quercus lanmodulin or other tools to separate groups of lanthanides from each other, such as lights from heavies, until they have pure elements.But biology doesn’t have to solve all the separation problems, says Park, because the chemical process remains an option. If microbiologists could go from a low-grade leachate to a solution that is, say, 80–90% REE, they could pass it on to the chemists to finish the job. Even with partial biomining, the whole process might still use less energy and produce less toxic waste than an entirely chemical purification.Emphasis on ‘might’: the commercial viability of this biomining approach remains to be seen. “The system needs to be incredibly robust, otherwise it won’t be economically feasible,” says Marina Kalyuzhnaya, a microbiologist on a DARPA REE project at San Diego State University in California.The Idaho team has calculated how much it would cost to use G. oxydans to recover REEs from hazardous waste originating in petroleum production, and estimated that the process could be economical18. The biggest costs in terms of both money and environmental hazards were electricity to power the plant and glucose to feed the microbes, with the sugar alone accounting for 44% of the investment. But microbe miners don’t necessarily need pure glucose. Alternatives include maize (corn) stover — the stalks, leaves and cobs left over after harvests — or the starchy water that runs off potatoes after they’re washed. Switching to either of these inputs, the team calculated, cut costs by 17% or more19.Another key question is how long purification columns will last before they have to be replaced. So far in the lab, scientists have run their columns only dozens of times at most, but mining companies could require tens of thousands of runs. “Any time we talk to somebody in industry, that’s the first question they’ll ask,” says Park. “It’s still a pretty open question.”Park advises scientists interested in studying this kind of process to talk to people in the mining industry to understand their needs. He’s also found “a wealth of expertise” in advice from peers at the Critical Materials Innovation Hub, a collaboration between labs in academia, industry and the US Department of Energy, led by Ames National Laboratory in Iowa. Its goal is to accelerate work on rare-earth and other materials that are key to clean energy. Conferences and journals from the American Chemical Society are also great resources for those interested in REE purification, Park says.And should lanthanide biomining prove successful, it could be only the beginning. There are other elements found in relatively low-grade ores that manufacturers would love to concentrate, Barstow says. “Rare earths are just a test bed for all the other minerals,” he says. “We want to make microbes that are tailored for all the other metals.” More

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    The Amazon’s record-setting drought: how bad will it be?

    Last month, a portion of the Negro River in the Amazon rainforest near Manaus, Brazil, shrank to a depth of just 12.70 metres — its lowest level in 120 years, when measurements began. In Lake Tefé, about 500 kilometres west, more than 150 river dolphins were found dead, not because of low water levels, but probably because the lake had reached temperatures close to 40 °C.
    ‘We are killing this ecosystem’: the scientists tracking the Amazon’s fading health
    These are symptoms of the unprecedented drought gripping the Amazon rainforest this year. Climate change is involved. But researchers who study the rainforest say other factors have come together to exacerbate this crisis, which has cut river communities off from supplies including food, and has forced Indigenous residents to use dirty, contaminated water, resulting in gastrointestinal and other illnesses.The drought is the sum of three things, says Luciana Gatti, a climate-change researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) in São José dos Campos. The first is deforestation, “which is killing the rainforest’s resilience and turning it into a drier, hotter place”, she says.Fire seasonDeforestation in the Brazilian Amazon dropped between January and July this year — by 42.5% compared with the same period in 2022, according to data from Inpe — but this follows a number of years of record destruction. The main culprit, say researchers who spoke to Nature, is agribusiness. Ranchers and farmers have cleared trees to expand Brazil’s agricultural area by about 50% over the past four decades, mostly in the Amazon, according to a report from MapBiomas, a consortium of academic, business and non-governmental organizations that monitor land use in the country.About 20% of the Amazon rainforest is deforested, and 40% is degraded — which means trees are still standing, but their health has faded and they are prone to fire and drought, Gatti says. “That was all done by humans.”

    Researchers study a freshwater dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) found dead in Lake Tefé amid a record drought in the Amazon rainforest.Credit: Gustavo Basso/NurPhoto via Getty

    Making matters worse is the second factor contributing to the drought: an El Niño climate pattern has begun this year.El Niño is a phase of a phenomenon called the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, and occurs every two to seven years. During El Niño, winds that usually blow east to west along the Equator weaken or reverse, and warm water pushes into the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Precipitation patterns change in South America, causing dry air in the north, where the rainforest lies, and damp air in the south. As a result, Uruguay is currently being slammed by heavy rains. In the past few months, Paraguay, Argentina and southern Brazil have experienced floods that have killed dozens of people and left thousands of others without shelter.But in northern and northeast Brazil, eight states have had the lowest July to September precipitation levels in 40 years, according to the Brazilian National Center for Early Warning and Monitoring for Natural Disasters (Cemaden) in São José dos Campos. These months are the peak of the ‘fire season’ in most of the Amazon.
    Oil from the Amazon? Proposal to drill at river’s mouth worries researchers
    Dry spells in the Amazon have consequences in addition to low water levels. Ranchers and others clearing the rainforest don’t burn trees when it’s rainy or when the air is humid, says Erika Berenguer, an ecosystems researcher at the University of Oxford, UK. But because El Niño has made the rainforest’s air dry, those who are clearing trees have been burning them, Berenguer says. This has added to the harsh conditions and has sparked some uncontrolled fires — something she experienced at first hand when she visited the town of Belterra in the northern state Pará in September.“We would sleep and wake up surrounded by smoke,” Berenguer says. Ironically, she was there with a team to study how vulnerable the rainforest is to fire. Things got so bad that she had to evacuate for 10 days. “I was shorter of breath than when I got COVID — and I am among those who can leave and get medicine. What about those who can’t?” she asks. “This is collective poisoning.”A visible patternThe third factor responsible for the Amazon’s severe drought is an unusual warming of the water in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Climate change is contributing to this anomaly, says Maria Assunção Dias, a climatologist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. The warming of these waters has affected the intertropical convergence zone. This region, which circles Earth close to the Equator, “is one of the main meteorological systems acting in the tropics and is a region of intense cloud and rain formation”, says Karina Lima, a geographer at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre. The zone has shifted north, taking the storms with it, away from northern Brazil.
    When will the Amazon hit a tipping point?
    All of this adds up to a record-setting year for the Amazon. The rainforest has experienced dry spells in the past, but severe droughts “are becoming more frequent”, Dias says. There is a visible pattern, she adds, citing extreme droughts in 1912, 1925, 1983, 1987, 1998, 2010, 2016 and now 2023.One big problem is that the current El Niño is just getting started. So “things are not going to get any better”, Gatti says.It might even turn into a ‘super’ El Niño, Dias says. This could occur if the sea surface temperature in the tropical Pacific reaches 2.5 °C higher than average — a possibility, given that 2023 looks set to be the hottest year ever recorded on Earth. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization issued a statement that there is a 90% likelihood that El Niño will persist at least until the end of April.Although it is hard to predict when the next drought might grip the Amazon, studies have shown that climate change is messing with the timing of El Niño. “The tendency is that we have stronger and more frequent episodes,” Lima says. This could be catastrophic for the Amazon rainforest, already battered by deforestation and a warming and drying climate. “The forest’s tipping point is coming closer — and it’s coming quick.” More

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    Stop violation of international water laws in Gaza

    As an experienced advocate of water diplomacy, I urge de-escalation of the water crisis in Gaza. In response to the Hamas attacks on southern Israel of 7 October, blockades by Israel have curtailed access to water for the Gaza Strip’s two million — predominantly civilian — inhabitants.
    Competing Interests
    The author declares no competing interests. More

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    Extreme drought is again isolating people in Amazonia

    As air temperatures soar to record highs in parts of the Amazonia, water levels are falling fast (see Authorities have announced emergency measures against impending drought, aware that millions have been harmed by extreme droughts in the past.
    Competing Interests
    The authors declare no competing interests. More

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    Grand plan to drought-proof India could reduce rainfall

    Rainfall in the northeastern state of Odisha might decrease by 12% if India’s river-linking plans are implemented.Credit: Asit Kumar/AFP via Getty

    A gigantic plan to link several of India’s rivers and divert vast volumes of water for irrigation could result in reduced rainfall in already water-stressed regions, according to a paper1 published in Nature Communications last month. The water transfer could affect the climate systems driving the Indian monsoon and reduce September rainfall by as much as 12% in some of the country’s states, according to the study.The paper is one of a string of independent research studies into the controversial plan. Some scientists have cautioned that too little is known about the environmental effects of the river engineering project for it to be implemented.The plan, first suggested by the British during colonial rule and most recently refined in 2015-2016, is “probably the largest manipulation of India’s hydrology to ever be conceived”, says Jagdish Krishnaswamy, an eco-hydrologist at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Bengaluru.The Indian water ministry plans to create a network of 15,000 kilometres of canals and thousands of reservoirs to transfer 174 billion cubic metres of water annually — roughly equivalent to the yearly water use of neighbouring Pakistan — from regions with abundant water to those that are in need of it. The study’s authors write that the goal of the project “is to keep the maximum possible water — which earlier used to reach oceans from river basins — on the land to meet the growing water demand of the country”.Other studies have assessed the potential impacts of the project, including sediment deposition and the consequences for aquatic ecosystems, but this is the first to assess how the land and the atmosphere interact to affect the way in which water cycles between them.Subimal Ghosh, one of the authors of the study and a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai, describes the water cycle as involving interaction between atmospheric moisture, oceans, plants releasing moisture and climactic patterns. He says his team aimed to study “how a river basin in one region impacts atmospheric processes and therefore impacts other regions as well”.“River interlinking plans may be useful but we need to have detailed assessments of climatic impacts,” explains Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, and another co-author of the study.More crops, more waterA core aim of the river-linking plan is to increase the area under irrigation by 35 million hectares. More crops would lead to higher levels of moisture being released from their leaves in a process known as evapotranspiration. With more moisture in the air locally, temperatures would reduce, and rainfall patterns and cloud formation would change.The team used computer modelling to examine the interplay between rainfall, humidity, soil moisture, temperature and wind speed across seven river basins for the monsoon months — June to September. The team did not model other months.The study found that the effect of the land–atmosphere interaction is highest in September. “September is when crops are at maturity and evapotranspiration is high,” explains Koll. This resulted in a reduction in September rainfall in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh of between 6.4% and 12%. The researchers also found an increase in September precipitation of up to 12% in northeastern states Bihar and Jharkhand and up to 10% in the central areas of Maharashtra and neighbouring Telangana.Reduced rainfall will translate to less flow in rivers in subsequent months, and this could exacerbate water stress in regions that are already arid, such as Rajasthan and Gujarat, the authors say.These effects do not factor in the impact of river flow into the ocean, which can also affect monsoonal rainfall, they also say.Nature asked India’s National Water Development Agency, which oversees the river-linking project, to comment on the study but did not receive a response.Scientists have welcomed the analysis. The paper highlights new implications of the project, says Krishnaswamy. “River linking may considerably reduce or neutralize the claimed benefits of inter-linking.”Rupa Kumar Kolli, a meteorologist at the International Monsoons Project Office at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune describes the paper as “a very important contribution”. He says he hopes that the paper will prompt a more thorough analysis of the river-linking project before it can go ahead. “There is no going back once the project is implemented.” More

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    Changing old viticulture for all the right rieslings

    In the face of climate change, wine-growers in France will have to adapt their vineyards to a warmer, dryer world while preserving the heritage of their wine.Credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty

    When April nights dip below freezing, Claude de Nicolay knows she won’t be getting much sleep. At 4 a.m., she climbs out of bed and heads outside to light around 300 candles set up between the vines at Domaine Chandon de Briailles, a biodynamic vineyard in the Burgundy region in France that de Nicolay owns and manages. Spring buds are emerging earlier because of warming March temperatures, yet frosts are still common in April. The candles produce just enough heat to thaw the buds and protect them from being destroyed by the Sun’s rays come daybreak.Although the candles are “a lot of work”, de Nicolay chooses to use them, rather than electric heaters, because they help to minimize her contribution to climate change — the problem that has caused her vineyard to become dangerously out of sync with nature. “Agriculturalists are the first people who are affected,” de Nicolay says. “The future is really about how to be very gentle with the soils, to go back to more manual work, to stop using chemicals and to stop using too much energy.”Wine-growers around the world from California to South Africa are feeling the heat as global warming increases temperatures, throws patterns of precipitation out of whack and drives up the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and wildfires. France’s wine sector faces extra vulnerabilities, thanks to its strict appellation d’origine contrôlée — a classification system with rigid rules about geography, grape varieties and production techniques. Under this system, “the origin becomes a sort of collective brand”, says Cornelis van Leeuwen, a viticulturist at Bordeaux Sciences Agro in Gradignan Cedex, France.France is the leading wine-producing country in terms of value. Last year, it exported wine worth €12.3 billion (US$13.3 million), accounting for about one-third of total global exports, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, based in Dijon, France. This is in large part owing to the strong branding that the appellation system has created, exemplifying “how you find identity in a competitive world”, says Etienne Neethling, head of the international master programme in vine, wine and terroir management at the Higher School of Agriculture in Angers, France. Much of this has to do with terroir, which translates to ‘land’. But in the context of French wine, terroir refers to an entire philosophy of production: environmental factors, such as soil type, are understood to influence the flavour profile of the grapes. It also factors in where the product came from and who produced it and how — growers in different regions have different approaches to winemaking, and value different characteristics in their wine.Terroir and the appellation system might be canny cultural-marketing strategies, but both might prevent French wine-makers from being agile and innovative in the face of changing environmental conditions. The appellation system’s strengths could become weaknesses if the country’s wine regulators and makers adhere too closely to custom and do not keep pace with a rapidly changing world. “We are extremely vulnerable because of our strict regulations,” Neethling says.As climate change intensifies, French wine-growers have begun to advocate for legislative changes that reflect the realities of the pressures that they face in the field and cellar. In the meantime, they aren’t waiting for decisions to be formalized on paper, but are finding creative solutions that still adhere to the rules. As de Nicolay says, “We have to react quicker than our governments, because otherwise it’s going to be a real disaster.”Action imperativeCompared with the 1980s, the grape harvest in France is now starting around three weeks earlier1. “All producers have observed this earlier harvest,” says Jean-Marc Touzard, director of research at the Montpellier centre of the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE).In 2019, Neethling and his colleagues conducted a survey of 3,636 wine-growers from 18 countries, which has not been published. Among the 1,298 French respondents, more than 80% were already noticing the impacts of climate change on vine performance and wine quality and were thinking about short- and long-term adaptation strategies. “Being reactive is no longer sustainable,” Neethling says. “We need to make sure our vineyards are the most climate-resilient possible.”
    Science in France
    In 2011, scientists and industry experts launched LACCAVE, a project aimed at examining the future of French winemaking. Sticking to business as usual, they found, was a strategy that “has no future”, says Touzard, who coordinated the project. The team also steered away from plans that relied solely on technology to save the day, he adds, because “it leads to artificialization of the wine industry” and “disconnection from the terroir”.Solutions will need to incorporate both science and centuries of wine-growing knowledge. For example, van Leeuwen and his colleagues have used chemical analysis to detect key molecules that influence aroma2. The findings could help wine-makers to more closely control the style and quality of their final product by basing decisions about harvest time on their grapes’ chemical profiles. A research team at the University of Bordeaux in France has used gas chromatography, a technique to separate and analyse vapourized compounds, and tastings by a panel of experts3 to explore and better understand the fruitiness of red wines produced from grape varieties that seem ideal for Bordeaux’s future climate.All solutions will need to be tailored to specific locations and driven by actions from a range of players, from individual growers and consumers to local and national authorities. This will all need to be done while “still trying to preserve the local identity of the wine”, Touzard says, yet at the same time accepting that “the taste, the flavour, will evolve”. The country’s wine-makers will walk a fine line between preserving the marketing advantages offered by time-honed knowledge and expertise and making sure that French vines aren’t left behind the rest of the world’s.Adaptive managementFrom 2009 to 2019, France’s Occitanie appellation — that is, the geographical area in which the region’s wine grapes are grown — lost 12% of its vineyard area, according to FranceAgriMer, a national platform that manages agricultural products. This was due to a number of factors, including growers abandoning some wine plots that were replanted with wheat — thanks in part to the changing climate — and producers switching to different grape varieties for similar reasons, and thus forfeiting their appellation label. “The landscape shift is thus still limited, but it has started and is set to increase,” Touzard says.As warming continues, Brittany and Normandy in the far north could become “a new picture of the French vineyard”, adds Hervé Quénol, the director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Rennes.In the heat-burdened southern regions of the Rhône Valley and Languedoc, wine-growers are contending with increasing droughts and a lack of water, leading to smaller berries and lower yields. “Yield is very responsive to weather and, in the long run, to climate,” says Karl Storchmann, an economist at New York University in New York City, who specializes in wine. The market reflects this: the price of land in the southern Languedoc region, for example, has been “sliding down like crazy”, Storchmann says, to less than half its equivalent value in 1991.

    Buds on the vines are emerging earlier than ever — heat from candles can prevent frost from destroying them, without contributing much to climate change.Credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty

    In response to increasing drought, some southern appellations have relaxed rules that forbid irrigation. In 2000, just 4% of vineyards in Languedoc, Provence and the Rhône Valley were irrigated — they produced ‘table wine’, or wine that does not meet the appellation system’s quality standards. Today, 20% are irrigated, and they are allowed to do so in some cases under more flexible appellation rules. In certain areas, such as the Bouche du Rhône, 50% of vineyards are now irrigated. “We estimate that, in the south of France, the potential demand for irrigation could reach 50% of all vineyards by 2030,” Touzard says.Irrigation raises questions about sustainability, especially if the water is taken from non-renewable sources such as aquifers. Irrigation can make vines more susceptible to drought in the long run, because the plants’ roots do not grow as deep. “The big question is whether irrigation should be a priority for viticulture,” Quénol says, “specifically in the south of France, because there is not enough water.”In other regions, wine-growers are exploring solutions such as innovative soil management, changing their pruning regimes, introducing spatial variation between the vines based on microclimate or shifting to agroforestry by integrating trees and shrubs into their vineyards. Researchers at INRAE found that adding trees can lower a vineyard’s temperature by 2–4 °C. Agroforestry should be viewed as a long-term tool because, in the first years after planting, trees compete with vines for water, wine-growers have to invest time and effort into tending the saplings and rows of vines usually need to be removed to make room — translating to lost income in the near term. Eventually, the roots of the trees grow deep and no longer compete with the vines for water, and the trees will help with local climate mitigation. Following this strategy, and to boost biodiversity, de Claude and her colleagues have already begun planting fruit trees around their vines.Others are looking into changing the make-up of conventional blends. For example, Bordeaux wines are typically made mainly of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and to a lesser extent petit verdot, cabernet franc, malbec and côt. However, “the emblematic merlot is clearly less adapted to climate change than cabernet sauvignon, so wine-growers could be tempted to increase the cabernet sauvignon proportion”, Touzard says.Another option is to introduce drought-resistant clones and varieties imported from hotter places such as Portugal, Italy and Greece. Since 2009, van Leeuwen has been investigating whether any of more than 50 varieties are better suited to Bordeaux’s warmer, dryer climate of the near future4. In 2019, the appellation of Bordeaux relaxed its rules to permit four new red varieties and two white ones. The appellation rules specified that, for now, growers can plant these varieties in only 5% of their vineyards, and these grapes can make up just 10% of any final blend.Some wine-growers have also had to start implementing changes in their cellars. Heat- and drought-stressed vines produce grapes that are less acidic and more sugary, leading to wine with different flavours and aromas and a higher alcohol content. In Languedoc, for example, the average alcohol content for red wine was around 11% in the 1980s; now, it’s 14%1. “The components of the berries are changing, which means changes in how the wine tastes,” Touzard says. “This could be a problem for specific markets with consumers who are really looking for traditional quality.”To try to balance out flavours and aromas, some French wine-makers are introducing new yeast strains during the fermentation process, fermenting the grapes at cooler temperatures, testing different types of storage aside from wood barrels and adding oenological innovations to better control acidity or reduce alcohol content. Still others are testing new blends incorporating grapes harvested at different dates, or ones made of different varieties. However, van Leeuwen points out that terroir is dynamic, and the taste of wine has always changed over time. “Consumers adapt to new styles,” he says.Optimism despite uncertaintyWhen Pablo Chevrot’s grandfather planted his first vines some 75 years ago at what is now Domaine Chevrot et Fils in Burgundy, he intended for his family to harvest grapes from those plants for up to a century. Some of those original vines are now collapsing — and given the pace of change, Chevrot knows that the ones he plants to replace them have little hope of ever making it to 100.If planetary warming exceeds 3–4 °C, then some wine-makers — especially those who are committed to the conventional terroir way of production — are likely to be out of a job. In this scenario, food security would probably become too pressing an issue to justify the water that goes into making a non-essential good such as wine. For the time being, Chevrot is doing what he can to ensure a viable future for his vineyard. “Nobody can ignore what is happening,” he says. “The doors are slowly opening for adaptation.”
    Fungal findings excite truffle researchers and gastronomes
    Chevrot, who has a degree in oenology, or the study of wine, stays on top of the scientific literature and is constantly experimenting with adaptations. “We’re working cleverly, but also going back to ancient ways,” he says. To deal with erratic frosts, he has begun pruning his vines later in the year, which postpones when buds first emerge from the vines. To cope with drought and high temperatures, he’s created higher canopies of leaves that provide more shade to the grapes. He works the land with horses, rather than tractors, to preserve the health of the soil, and six years ago he started to plant annual vegetation around the vines that helps to retain winter and spring water into the summer. In the summer, he cuts the annuals back to create “a sponge of organic matter” that continues to hold water and cool the soil, he says.More and more French wine-makers are following a similar path. “They’re recognizing that the more climate-resilient or smart the vineyard is, the better they will be able to adapt to climate change,” Neethling says. They’re also seeing the importance of regenerative farming that focuses on natural resources, he adds, and the need to mitigate their environmental impacts.Indeed, de Nicolay and her colleagues have been committed to a fully biodynamic approach since 2005. They are seeing positive results compared with their neighbours, who rely on machines and chemicals. When temperatures soar in mid-August, de Nicolay’s vines sport no yellow leaves — unlike those in nearby vineyards. “Wine-makers are asking how we do it,” she says. “They see our vineyard with much more life and strength against all these bad impacts.”For now, the extra effort and care are paying off. “What will happen in the next years, we don’t know,” de Nicolay says. “But we stay optimistic because we believe we are taking the right direction.” More

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    I ski for miles in the wilderness to measure dust atop snow

    When I started studying snowmelt in 2009 in Utah and Colorado, I was most interested in quantifying the impact of warming temperatures on melt rates. But when I skied to research sites to collect snow samples, the mountainous landscapes were covered in dust; in Colorado, it was red from desert soils that had blown in. Fourteen years later, it’s clear that 2009 was one of the biggest years for dust deposition onto snow.Last month, we published research (O. I. Lang et al. Environ. Res. Lett. 18, 064045; 2023) that demonstrated how dust from the exposed Great Salt Lake bed falls in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Since 2009, I have spent every March through May skiing to remote sites in Utah and Colorado, where I monitor how dust layers evolve. I usually have to ski several kilometres, carrying a 27-kilogramme pack with a shovel to dig a snow pit, tools to cut snow wedges and measure their density, and containers to collect snow samples for analyses. One year, I hit a dusty patch of snow, broke my ski and sliced my leg open.In areas with heavy dust deposition, such as the southern Rocky Mountains, dust accelerates melt by one or two months. Warming air temperatures affect snow accumulation, but dust builds up over time and darkens the surface, which then absorbs more sunlight and hastens melt.We are now exploring different ice and snow landscapes — such as the Himalayas and the Andes — to study, for example, how black-carbon buildup following forest fires affects melting. In this picture from August 2019, I am in Greenland, measuring the ice’s surface reflectivity. Behind me, accumulated dark sediment flows into the stream.As we move into a future that is likely to be even dustier, I am trying to develop snowmelt models. We need to be able to predict snowmelt for many reasons, including to work out how to use water in the western United States as efficiently as possible. More

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    Maui fires could taint the island’s waters —scientists are investigating

    Damaged cars line a waterfront street in Lahaina, Hawaii. Toxins released by burnt items could infiltrate the city’s water supply.Credit: Paula Ramon/AFP via Getty

    As search crews wrap up the hunt for people missing after fires swept the Hawaiian island of Maui, scientists are gearing up for a challenge facing survivors: water contamination. Early indications suggest that the local water system has been compromised in places, and the sheer scale of the damage could pose unprecedented threats to Maui’s diverse coastal ecosystem.So far, more than 100 people in Maui have been confirmed dead, making the wildfire that devastated the city of Lahaina the deadliest in modern US history. Hundreds more people are still unaccounted for. The fire damaged or destroyed an estimated 2,200 buildings, creating a toxic environment that is likely to affect water quality. The carcinogenic chemical benzene has turned up in the public water system in Lahaina, and local officials have advised residents not to drink tap water. Scientists also fear that contaminated run-off will flow onto the island’s sensitive coral reefs.“We have had large fire events before, but this is a different beast,” says Chris Shuler, a hydrologist with the Water Resources Research Center of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, in Honolulu. “There’s no playbook for this. Everybody is just figuring it out as we go,” adds Shuler, who is based on Maui.A fire’s toxic legacyWorking in parallel with local water officials, scientists at the University of Hawaii have already started testing for a variety of contaminants that could be released by the incineration of plastics, vehicles, household chemicals and other sources.Initial results might not be available for several days, but there is every reason to suppose that the water system in Lahaina has been contaminated, says Andrew Whelton, an engineer at the Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, who specializes in disaster response. The problem, Whelton says, is that when multiple buildings are destroyed, the water system not only loses pressure but also can develop a vacuum that pulls pollution from burnt areas into water-delivery pipes. Those pollutants can then circulate through the water system as firefighters and residents open hydrants and taps to keep the flames at bay.

    Volunteers unload bottled water from a boat in Maui, where some residents have been advised not to drink the tap water.Credit: Rick Bowmer/AP via Alamy

    “The pipes and water volumes are designed to handle one or two structure fires,” says Whelton, who spent more than a week in Maui to help coordinate relief efforts with the University of Hawaii and government agencies. “They are not designed for an entire city to burn down.”The university is testing for benzene, formaldehyde and 86 other chemicals that are classified as volatile organic compounds. It is also checking for dozens of other contaminants. Test results from the inland community of Kula, where a second fire destroyed several hundred structures, have turned up little contamination thus far, Shuler says. But it could be several days before the university team gets its first test results from Lahaina, where the Maui County water department discovered benzene.Whelton says contamination is likely to show up in Kula as well. Hundreds or even thousands of samples will need to be tested to fully assess the risk across the island, he says.Reefs at riskScientists and government officials are already starting to think about longer-term impacts on the coral reefs, which are core to Lahaina’s economy and cultural identity. For Steve Calanog, incident commander for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that means working to prevent ashes tainted with contaminants such as asbestos, lead and arsenic from blowing into the ocean.Now that search and recovery operations are coming to an end, the EPA is preparing to move through the burnt zone to recover hazardous materials such as household chemicals, batteries and propane canisters. The agency then plans to spray cleared areas with a biodegradable soil stabilizer that will create a temporary crust on the ash piles. The material is commonly used for dust control in construction and other industries, but its application in wildfire recovery is relatively new. Calanog says that Lahaina represents a particular challenge, presenting a complex and often hazardous mix of urban fire debris that is sitting immediately next to coral reefs.
    Controlling pollution and overfishing can help protect coral reefs — but it’s not enough
    Other researchers are already starting to think about how to monitor fires’ impacts on the ocean. Scientists will be watching for everything from algal blooms to changes in acidification — as well as long-term changes in ocean nutrients and chemistry, which could drive a shift from a coral-based reef to one that is dominated by algae, says Andrea Kealoha, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii’s Maui campus, in Kahului.Kealoha and her colleagues are applying for a National Science Foundation grant to investigate the ecosystem impacts. They are also hoping for a separate grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so that they can monitor contaminants in fish populations to ensure that the fish are safe to eat.But for now, Kealoha is planning to test seawater samples that she collected off the coast a little over a week after the initial fire. Days before her sampling trip, according to the captain of the boat she was on, the ocean had been covered in ash and gleaming with oily substances. When she went out, however, the water was crystal clear, suggesting that the initial wave of pollution might have been carried farther out to sea by the winds.It will take time to gather the data and understand the impacts, she says, and people in Lahaina are already starting to ask questions. “The community wants to know about the long-term impacts to our waters and to our ecosystems,” she says. “It’s time to start addressing these questions.” More