Theoretically, trees could help with that. As they grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, in short, turn it into wood. But many plants only grow one leg or less per year. To not only stop climate change but actually reverse it, someone would have to invent a plant that can grow a lot faster.
Living Carbon, a company based in San Francisco, says it has done exactly that.
These are hybrid poplars genetically engineered to grow faster, the startup says, so they absorb more carbon dioxide and help mitigate the damage of climate change. Carbon dioxide has grown rapidly in the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, leading to extreme climate effects.
The startup says it edits the genes of plants to speed up photosynthesis, the process plants use to make food from carbon dioxide and water. This allows plants to grow faster with more energy, according to the company.
In one case, a tree it transformed accumulated 53% more mass over the course of five months of growth, according to a Living Carbon report published earlier this year. Living Carbon says this means about 27% more carbon is captured. The findings are a proof of concept, so they will need to be demonstrated to preserve the longevity of the trees and at a large enough scale to have a significant climate impact.
Living Carbon plans to plant about 4 million trees by 2023, and they have already conducted trial plantings on abandoned minefields. Living Carbon says if it doubles the existing tree planting area each year, by 2030 it will remove 604 million tonnes of carbon. That’s 1.66% global emissions in a typical year, according to Living Carbon.
The startup, founded in 2019 and raised $15 million, plans to create revenue from the sale of saplings and the carbon credits it receives for its genetically modified trees.
Co-founders of Living Carbon, Maddie Hall and Patrick Mellor, see genetically modified trees as a way not only to capture carbon but also to restore damaged soil. Hall previously worked as an investor focused on climate change and biotechnology. She met Mellor at the Foresight Institute, a technology-focused nonprofit, which he joined while focusing on climate stability.
“About 75% of land worldwide has been degraded by human activity,” Hall told CNN Business. “How do we develop species that can actually capture carbon on those lands? You need biotechnology to do that.”
Another potential benefit of gene-edited trees is that their roots will grow faster, which could help address soil erosion more quickly in deforested areas.
Living Carbon is one of several startups trying to capitalize on “synthetic biology,” in which humans program cells just as they have long programmed computer chips and software to accomplish tasks. .
Living Carbon says it chose to work first with hybrid poplars because its genomes have been sequenced and they are grown in a research and academic context. The hybrid poplars seemed to be a quicker way to prove their idea could work. They say they are also working on the Loblolly pine.
Living Carbon says it is focusing more than half of its research on slowing biomass degradation to solve this problem, and its seedlings can also be harvested to make durable wood products, making slow decomposition.
Kent H. Redford, a conservationist and consultant who wrote the book “Strange Nature” on synthetic biology, told CNN Business that modifying trees has potential, but much remains. not yet known. There are reasonable concerns, including whether GM plants could become invasive, unwelcome species. Conservationists should engage tech creators, he said, to see if there are ways their ideas can work economically and socially.
He added that conservationists are failing to preserve biodiversity, so they must be open to considering new tools, while avoiding hype.
“They are here and they will stay,” says Redford of tools like synthetic biology. “We have to talk to the public without turning it into a ‘this is the world’s best solution,’ or this is the world’s worst idea.” “
Sean Clark contributed to this report.