This Supercharged Tree Could Fight Climate Change

Washington (CNN) — The problem with trees is that they are too slow.

Part of the problem with catastrophic climate change is that, by some measures, an incredible amount of damage has already been done. Even if all coal-fired power plants magically converted to wind and solar power plants overnight, and all our cars were electric, all the greenhouse gases we pushed into our atmosphere for 200 years would still be there.

Trees could, in theory, help fix it. As they grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, to cut a long story short, turn it into wood. But many trees grow only half a meter or less a year. To not only stop climate change, but reverse it, someone would have to invent a tree that grew much, much faster.

Living Carbona San Francisco-based company, says it has done just that.

The company says it has genetically modified hybrid poplar trees so they grow faster and absorb more carbon dioxide and help minimize damage from climate change. Carbon dioxide has been growing rapidly in the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, causing extreme weather effects.

The company says it edits trees’ genes to speed up photosynthesis, the process plants use to make food from carbon dioxide and water. This allows trees to grow faster with the extra energy, according to the company.

In one case, a tree he modified accumulated 53% more mass during five months of growth, according to a report Living Carbon published earlier this year. According to Living Carbon, this translates to 27% more carbon capture. The results are a proof of concept, so they will have to be shown to last over the life of a tree, and at a scale large enough to have a significant impact on climate.

Living Carbon plans to plant some 4 million trees by 2023, and has already carried out test plantings on abandoned mining sites. According to Living Carbon, if you double the area of ​​planted trees each year, by 2030 you will have removed 604 million tons of carbon. That’s 1.66% of global emissions in a normal year, according to Living Carbon.

The startup, founded in 2019 and which has raised $15 million, plans to generate revenue from the sale of saplings and the carbon credits it receives for its genetically modified trees.

Living Carbon co-founders Maddie Hall and Patrick Mellor see gene-edited trees as a way to not only capture carbon, but also restore damaged land. Hall previously worked as an investor focused on climate change and biotechnology. She met Mellor at the Foresight Institute, a technology-focused nonprofit he was involved with while focusing on climate stabilization.

“About 75% of the land around the world has been degraded due to human activity,” Hall told CNN Business. “How do we develop species that are capable of actually sequestering carbon on those lands? You need biotechnology to do that.”

In Brazil, there was record deforestation of the Amazon in the first half of 2022. In the US, the Midwest has registered 150 years of deforestation that affected the forests that had grown for 8,000 years since the glaciers retreated.

“What took millennia to accumulate took less than two centuries to eliminate,” they wrote this month in a study university scientists, funded by the National Science Foundation.

Another potential benefit of genetically modified trees is that their roots will grow faster, which could help deal with soil erosion in deforested areas more quickly.

Living Carbon is one of a number of startups trying to harness “synthetic biology,” in which humans program cells as they have long programmed computer chips and software to perform tasks.

Living Carbon says it chose to work with hybrid poplars first because their genome was already sequenced and they are grown in research and academic contexts. Hybrid poplars seemed like a quicker way to prove his idea could work. They say they are also working with Loblolly pines.

But using trees to capture carbon is not a cure-all. Over time, trees die and their carbon is released upon decomposition.

Living Carbon says it is focusing more than half of its research on slowing biomass decomposition to address this, and its seedlings can also be harvested for durable wood products, slowing decay.

Kent H. Redford, a conservationist and consultant who wrote the book “Strange Natures” on synthetic biology, told CNN Business that modifying trees has potential, but much remains unknown. There are reasonable concerns, such as that genetically modified trees could become unwanted invasive species. Conservationists should engage technology creators to see if their ideas can work socially and economically, he said.

He added that conservationists are failing to preserve biodiversity, so they must be open to considering new tools while avoiding hype.

“They’re here to stay,” Redford said of tools like synthetic biology. “We need to talk to the public without turning it into a litany of ‘this is the best solution in the world’ or this is the worst idea in the world.”

— Sean Clark contributed to this report.

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