I. Microscopic Algae May Help Save Ailing Coral Reefs

Trust Magazine Summer 2017

Corals such as this great star coral (Montastraea cavernosal) may be better able to resist bleaching when paired with Clade D algae, according to new research. (© Nature/UIG/Getty Images)

In recent years, marine scientists in Florida have wondered why some corals are more resilient to warming waters. Now they may have an answer: a type of microscopic organism that uses sunlight to make food for its hosts.

Andrew Baker, a Pew marine fellow and marine biologist at the University of Miami, and colleagues discovered that corals paired with a specific group of microscopic algae—zooxanthellae, or photosynthetic algae, known as clade D—resist bleaching at temperatures both warmer and colder than usual.

The scientists have come to call the clade D “tenacious D” because of its tolerance to extreme heat and cold, says Baker. “In some cases, [they] might help provide a lifeline for corals to help them survive extreme conditions.” Clade D appears to elevate corals’ bleaching thresholds by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius, depending on the location.

Published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, this new research marks the first investigation into these algae’s tolerance to cold temperatures. This unusual hardiness may explain the findings of previous studies, which observed that clade D tends to become more common in reefs after mass coral bleaching events.

All reef-building corals live in partnership with zooxanthellae—but exposure to overly warm or cool temperatures can trigger corals to expel most of them, creating a condition known as coral bleaching. Without these organisms, corals lose their pigment and appear ghostly white, making it harder to photosynthesize—and often die. Bleaching—an increasing environmental concern—is devastating Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for the second year in a row, mirroring back-to-back episodes of bleaching in Florida in 2014 and 2015.

Baker’s team is working to take its findings to the next step. In the laboratory, the team is able to make corals adopt greater numbers of clade D—a process researchers call stress hardening. They are exploring whether this technique can be used to plant heat-tolerant corals in the ocean and, ultimately, help rebuild reefs in Florida to be more durable. Pew’s marine fellows are selected based on their marine conservation work.

—Erica Sanderson

II. Republicans and Democrats Disagree on Why People Are Rich or Poor

Beyond partisan differences over economic policies, stark divisions exist on a fundamental question: What makes someone rich or poor? Most Republicans link financial standing to a person’s own hard work—or lack of it. Most Democrats say being rich or poor is more attributable to circumstances beyond a person’s control.

The findings come from a Pew Research Center survey released in May showing that the public is about evenly divided over which has more to do with why a person is rich: Forty-five percent say it is because he or she worked harder than most people, while 43 percent say it is because the person had more advantages in life than others. Opinion has shifted modestly on this question: In 2014 and 2015, more people attributed wealth to greater advantages than to a stronger work ethic.

By a margin of about 3-to-1 (66 percent to 21 percent), Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say hard work, rather than a person’s advantages, has more to do with why someone is rich. By nearly as wide a margin, Democrats and those who lean Democratic say the opposite: Sixty percent say a person is rich because he or she had more advantages than others, while just 29 percent say it is because the person has worked harder.

As with many other issues, partisan differences in views of why people are rich and poor have increased in recent years. Since 2014, the share of Republicans who say a person is rich because he or she has worked harder than others has risen 12 percentage points, to 66 percent. Democrats’ views have shown less change.

Trust Magazine Summer 2017

In assessing why some people are poor, 53 percent of the public thinks it’s because of circumstances beyond their control, while 34 percent attribute it to a lack of effort. There has been little change in these opinions in recent years.

Republicans are more likely to say the reason that someone is poor generally has more to do with a person’s lack of effort (56 percent) than circumstances beyond his or her control (32 percent). More Democrats say that circumstances beyond one’s control are generally more often to blame for why a person is poor—by 71 percent to 19 percent. The share of Democrats who link a person being poor to a lack of effort has declined since 2014 (from 29 percent to 19 percent).

Views of why some people are rich and poor vary by gender, education, and income level as well. For example, men (49 percent) are slightly more likely than women (41 percent) to say that hard work is more often the reason that someone is rich. Men (42 percent) also are more likely than women (26 percent) to say that a lack of effort is more to blame if someone is poor.

Those with postgraduate degrees are more likely to say that having greater advantages in life has more to do with why a person is rich (52 percent) than they are to say that hard work has more to do with it (34 percent). Those with less education are more divided on what has more to do with wealth. When it comes to the reasons that a person is poor, majorities of postgraduates (62 percent) and college graduates (59 percent) say circumstances are generally to blame. Most of those with some college experience (54 percent) also take this view. Among those with no more than a high school diploma, about half (49 percent) point to circumstances as the reason that a person is poor, while 38 percent cite a lack of effort.

People with higher family incomes are more likely than those with lower incomes to say a person is rich because he or she has worked harder rather than because the person had more advantages. Only modest differences exist across income categories in views of why someone is poor.

—Demetra Aposporos

III. Does Cholesterol Influence Cell Growth?

The body’s relationship with cholesterol is a fickle one.  Too much of the compound can lead to heart disease, yet people need a certain amount of it to function properly.

That’s because cholesterol acts as a building block for cell membranes, among other things. In order to maintain the right balance, cells have evolved a system to sense cholesterol levels and adjust the rate at which the body both produces it and absorbs it from the foods we eat. According to a new study by Roberto Zoncu, a Pew-Stewart Scholar for Cancer Research, this system may also control a cell’s size and whether or when it divides—a finding that could improve science’s understanding of certain diseases and perhaps lead to new treatments.

Zoncu studies lysosomes—cellular structures that specialize in storing, releasing, and processing cholesterol and other nutrients. In the March issue of Science, he and his colleagues describe discovering how lysosomes relay the availability of cholesterol via mTOR—a master nutrient sensor—to control cell growth.

The Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research are early-career scientists whose work shows promise in advancing progress for a cure for cancer. Each year, five scholars are selected for the program and granted $240,000 over four years to pursue their work. The program is funded by the Alexander and Margaret Stewart Trust, and administered by Pew.

The team’s discovery offers new insights about how cells regulate growth based upon their ability to sense the nutrients people consume, as well as how abnormalities in cholesterol sensing could increase the prevalence of illnesses that are characterized by inappropriate cell growth, such as cancer and metabolic diseases. Eventually, it may also lead to new approaches for treating those illnesses, such as by starving cancer cells of nutrients.

—Demetra Aposporos

IV. Fewer Summer Jobs for Philadelphia Teens

Trust Magazine Summer 2017

Many teens will have more time to play sports this summer—like these young men in South Philadelphia—because of a dearth of seasonal jobs. (© Lexey Swall/GRAIN for The Pew Charitable Trusts)

June may mark a break from school for Philadelphia teenagers, but it doesn’t mean that most of them are benefiting from another ritual of youth: a summer job.

A Pew analysis finds that far fewer summer jobs have been available in recent years for Philadelphia’s young people than there once were—and that Philadelphia lags behind many of its peer cities in teen employment. The finding is based on data from the Center for Economic Studies of the U.S. Census Bureau, which looks at how many young people, ages 14 to 18, had a job on July 1 of any given year.

In 2000, 15,562 Philadelphia teens in that age range had summer jobs.  In 2015, the last year for which data were available, the figure was 5,288—a drop of nearly 60 percent. The decline was similar for boys and girls, although girls overall had higher summer employment throughout.

Nationally, the 2015 teen summer employment rate—calculated by taking the number of teens employed divided by the full teen population—was 15 percent; in Philadelphia, it was 9 percent.

The data is available only for cities that also are counties or made up of several counties, like New York. “Among those places Philadelphia’s rate was the lowest, although it was virtually the same as New York’s,” says Larry Eichel, who directs Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative. “In most of the other cities, the employment rate increased from 2010 to 2015.”

For teens, having a summer job can be a valuable experience, a chance to earn money and sample life in the workplace. Research also shows that summer employment has positive long-term effects, including improved academic performance and higher wages as an adult. And there is some evidence to suggest that those who have had summer jobs are less likely to commit crimes in the year after they finish the work.

City officials are aware of the value of these jobs, and Mayor Jim Kenney (D) has called for there to be 16,000 paid summer opportunities through the Philadelphia Youth Network’s WorkReady program by 2020; government-subsidized jobs and internships created through the program are not included in the census totals. Kenney himself has noted that he first became a city employee by working a summer job at the city’s parks and recreation department in the 1970s.

—Daniel LeDuc