Living Carbon designs trees to grow faster and capture more carbon

Genetic engineering has given scientists the power to manipulate the fundamental properties of living things, from humans to animals and plants.

In the case of plants, genetic adjustments have produced various results, including increased crop yields.

The technology hasn’t been used much in trees, but that may be about to change; As climate change alarm bells ring, scientists and engineers are looking for a possible way to extract more carbon from the atmosphere, and a group of researchers wonder if it would be possible to use the original tool to nature to capture carbon and help us. But for them to really help us, they can’t be normal trees, they have to be designed with specific characteristics and abilities.


Living Carbon

A startup called Living Carbon is taking up this challenge.

The company, which says its mission is “rebalancing the planet’s carbon cycle through the power of plantsuses genetic engineering to create trees that grow faster and capture more carbon than their natural predecessors.

When plants convert carbon dioxide into sugars, toxic byproducts are formed, and plants use a process called photorespiration to break down these byproducts. The problem is that photorespiration consumes a lot of the plant’s energy and only ends up retaining about three quarters of the available carbon. Scientists have long tried to hack photosynthesis to improve this process.

Increase the efficiency of photosynthesis in poplars.

The Living Carbon team focused on improving the efficiency of photosynthesis in poplars.

They selected genes from pumpkins and green algae that allowed poplar trees to have a lower photorespiration rate (meaning the tree would lose less energy and retain more carbon) and inserted the genes into tree DNA.

They also added a trait that allows the roots and trunk to absorb more metals, making the wood more durable and helping to retain carbon longer.

This means that trees can grow in less than ideal soils where there is a high concentration of heavy metals, caused by mining or manufacturing operations.

The company says it is actively working with private landowners to plant trees on underperforming land, such as abandoned mines.

The company claims that their genetically improved poplar trees grew more than 1.5 times (53%) faster, had a higher rate of photosynthesis and absorbed more carbon than unmodified trees. Growth was measured by weighing the trees and examining the amount of aboveground biomass they had accumulated over a 21 week period (although at such an early stage of growth it should be noted that there is no not really trees yet, but rather seedlings or young trees).

Keep in mind that the seedlings were grown in a greenhouse under very controlled conditions and results may vary greatly if the same seeds are planted outdoors.

However, Living Carbon is involved: it has planted more than 600 improved trees in a partnership with Oregon State University and has ongoing contracts to plant more trees on private land in the Southeast and the Appalachians.

Ethical issues.

Any project that attempts to alter Mother Nature’s master plan raises ethical questions.

Could there be negative effects on the wider ecosystem that scientists are not aware of? Could trees do their job of capturing carbon for a while and then die unexpectedly, releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere?

All of these scenarios, and many more, are possible.

But the problem with changing Mother Nature’s master plan is that much of humanity already did that when it started burning fossil fuels.

Melting glaciers and ice caps, rising sea levels, warming the entire planet, and trivializing disasters like floods and fires were probably not part of the plan. But all of that is happening, so you could say we have a moral imperative to use whatever technology we can to try and clean up the mess we’ve created.

Many feel that having the knowledge and technology to plant better trees is an option that should be explored. Others believe that mother nature should do the work and that we should make it easier for her with natural means. But what is clear is that there is a much needed hand.

And you do you think?

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