Genetically Engineered Trees For Carbon Dioxide Removal?

Genetically Engineered Trees For Carbon Dioxide Removal? - Carbon Herald

Part of the climate change solution (in addition to carbon dioxide removal) is to develop alternatives and technologies that can replace fossil fuels in day-to-day life. Examples of that are renewable energy, electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell technologies, organic materials in the production of single-use products like bags, etc. 

Apart from stopping the use of fossil fuels, the world would also need to deal with the oversupply of CO2 already in the atmosphere. According to some analysis, the world would need to remove 1 trillion tons of CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere this century to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

There is a startup called Living Carbon that has looked at trees as a solution for carbon dioxide removal. The startup is taking a different approach and has managed to genetically modify trees to improve the efficiency of forests to sequester CO2. 

The geoengineered trees would be able to absorb more carbon dioxide than a typical tree. Living Carbon is currently part of the prestigious Y Combinator incubator program. 

The technology works by targeting the process of photosynthesis, in order to make trees better at absorbing sunlight. A genetic edit is possible in trees that makes them grow faster and thus absorb more CO2. 

The company is also working on hacking another gene that would equip trees with natural fungicides. It would slow down the decomposition rate so that the carbon can stay sequestered for longer. 

Advantages And Challenges Of The Carbon Dioxide Removal Technology

According to the company one of the advantages of the technology is that it can save land for planting trees that could be used for other purposes. “What can you do so instead of planting 1 trillion trees, you only have to plant, you know, 500 billion?…Then you have a lot more acreage available for other things,” says the company’s CEO Maddie Hall.

Also the possibility to increase forests’ CO2 sequestration potential with 20%-30% would get additional carbon drawdown for the same area of tree coverage. 

However, tree geoengineering is a controversial topic and the company is faced with some challenges regarding acceptance. The Forest Stewardship Council that certifies responsibly managed forests, doesn’t allow any genetically modified trees in the forests it approves and may classify them as GMO. 

The company argues that the US government should research projects about genetic engineering instead of holding them back as they could provide possible solutions for climate change. 

“Given the challenges, we should be testing heat tolerance in trees in the ground as we get hotter and hotter. And drought tolerance. There’s all kinds of promising genes that we could be testing and essentially almost none of that’s going on,” says Steve Strauss, a professor of forest biotechnology at Oregon State University, advising the startup and collaborating on the research. 

Living Carbon is working on a climate change solution that according to the company, is less expensive than other technological solutions like carbon capture and storage. Trees are a natural carbon sink and provide a viable CO2 removal but genetically modifying them needs to be researched further and tested for safety and efficiency.  

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