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Extreme Environmental Physiology: Life at the Limits

Events

Extreme Environmental Physiology: Life at the Limits

Events

Mike Tipton, Extreme Environments Laboratory, Department of Sport and Exercise Science, Portsmouth University, UK


“Ecology”, from the Greek “oikos” meaning home or place to live, is the branch of biology that deals with the relationships of organisms and their physical surroundings. It encompasses the impact of animals on their environment, and the environment on animals. Both sides of the ecology coin are becoming increasingly important and linked.

On one side we are careering, largely unfettered, towards the man-made abyss of the end game of global warming; we are threatening our direct descendants, but at a rate and distance that doesn’t provoke us to action.

On the other side, only 15% of the surface of our planet is not water, desert, ice or mountain. For a tropical, low-altitude, air-breathing human, this means most of planet Earth represents an extreme environment, defined as a place where it is difficult to survive. The link between the two is, of course, that global warming will make our planet even more extreme with flooding, erosion, heat waves, cold snaps and desertification.

Perhaps, therefore, there is no better time for The Physiological Society to plan a specialist conference on Extreme Environmental Physiology (EEP) on 2–4 September.

From origins where EEP research was largely undertaken for occupational groups such as miners and the military, as well as those attempting expeditions to remote parts of the globe, EEP has now become much more “mainstream”. The greatest number of submissions and publications in the journals of The Physiological Society come from the areas of “environmental” and “exercise” physiology; both of which have extreme environmental components.

EEP research continues to examine the responses of humans to environmental stressors such as heat, cold and altitude; these remain important areas in themselves with, for example, at least 1,000 people dying from drowning every day around the planet. But EEP research is now also providing insights into a wide range of other conditions such as responses to hypoxia on intensive care (“survivor phenotypes”); ageing; peripheral vascular disease; osteoporosis; and debilitation caused in critical care patients by bed rest.

In addition, as we take greater and greater control of our environment through technology, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we need to challenge our homeostatic mechanisms in order to remain functional. At one time we did this naturally by exercise and exposure to the natural world; now we have to employ thermal therapies for a wide range of physiological and mental health pathologies, from microvascular function through autonomic function to depression.

The specialist conference at Portsmouth in September will reflect all of the above, with sessions on cold, heat, hypo- and hyperbaric physiology, micro-gravity and cross-adaptation. To remind us what an eclectic discipline physiology is, each session will include short keynotes on physiology, pathophysiology and comparative physiology, as well as plenty of time for free communications. Finally, it seems appropriate that we should “flip the coin” and spend some time on what the environment might have in store for us if we continue to damage it.

Our exciting keynote speakers include:

  • Chris Imray  case-medicine.co.uk/Chris-Imray
  • Sundeep Dhillon  xtreme-everest.co.uk/Dr-Sundeep-Dhillon
  • Larry Kenney  news.psu.edu/expert/w-larry-kenney
  • Kevin Fong  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Fong
  • Andreas Fahlman  tamug.edu/mmbeg/_cv/Andreas%20Fahlman.htm
  • Dominic McCafferty  gla.ac.uk/researchinstitutes/bahcm/staff/dominicmccafferty/
  • Hugh Montgomery  iseh.co.uk/consultantdetails/basic-science-research/42/Hugh-Montgomery
  • James Pawelczyk  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_A._Pawelczyk#Education

Further reading

  1. Martin & McKenna (2017). High Altitude Research and its Relevance to Critical Illness. ICU Management & Practice 17(2), 103-105.
  2. Tipton MJ (2015). GL Brown Lecture: “Extreme Threats” Environmental extremes: origins, consequences and amelioration. Experimental Physiology. doi: 10.1113/EP085362.
  3. Tipton, M. J. (2018) Humans: a homeothermic animal that needs perturbation? Experimental Physiology. https://doi.org/10.1113/EP087450.

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