Nature is inherently efficient in managing the ecosystem, but the sheer volume of carbon emission is overwhelming it. Empowering plants with a bit of genetic innovation could help tip the scales in nature’s favor.
The world is emitting 1000 tons of CO2 per second into the atmosphere, and with less than 500 Gigatons of CO2 emissions remaining to keep global warming below 2°C, we are running out of time to find a solution.
Processes for removing CO2 from the atmosphere already exist, but they remain extremely costly, require huge amounts of space and energy, and often have carbon footprints of their own.
So, scientists are now looking to nature for answers. At the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, biologist Joanne Chory and her team are exploring how to enable plants to catch up with the volume of carbon emissions. Out of the 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide emitted annually; plants now process and capture about half. Chory believes that a big difference can be made if we improve plants’ productivity. She and her team want to create a supercharged “Ideal Plant” by enhancing its ability to convert carbon dioxide into biomass through genetic modifications.
The ability to absorb and hold on to carbon increases as trees grow bigger and older, making them an ideal candidate. However, the ageing process for large trees takes hundreds to thousands of years, and they amass most of their stored carbon in the latter years of their lives. Genetic engineering can accelerate that process, allowing for more carbon sequestration in a lesser amount of time.
Crop plants, such as soyabeans, corn, and rice, are also a promising option to be used as Ideal Plants. Crops’ roots stay underground after the plants are harvested, keeping carbon locked in. However, in order to make a significant impact on emissions, crops would have to be grown at a considerably large scale.
On top of removing carbon dioxide from the air, there is also the need to keep carbon stored. When plants decompose, they release carbon back into the atmosphere. So aside from having a greater capacity for carbon absorption, Ideal Plants should also be able to hold on to carbon for a much longer time.
Charles DeLisi, a biomedical engineer at Boston University is programming trees to transform captured carbon into calcium carbonate, preventing carbon from being released if the tree dies. The white substance could also be collected and used as a natural source of raw material for plastic or other durable materials.
This is not the only option being explored. By using the gene that increase production of suberin, a kind of complex natural plastic that doesn’t decay easily in soil, Julie Law, an Associate Professor at Salk is engineering plants with deep massive roots that will degrade less over time.
While the solution is promising, questions remain if introducing new elements like genetic modifications into the environment, especially on a large scale, can have unintended consequences given the interconnectedness of our ecosystem .
There’s also the temptation to ease up efforts to curtail emissions because the problem is already being addressed from the other side. Not only would this counteract the progress achieved by negative emissions, it would also continue to drive society’s reliance on fossil fuels.
If we are ever going to reach the goal of becoming carbon free, or at least bringing carbon emissions to “net zero”, every possible measure must be explored. Bio-sequestration should be considered as one solution among many that are working together to combat climate change.
As Wolfgang Busch, one of the project leaders at Salk Institute for Biological Studies told Financial Times, “We can’t assume that a single solution is good enough. We have to prepare all of the tools to be ready, and the scale of the thing is unimaginable.”
Hook, Leslie, “Could a New Superplant Solve the Climate Crisis?”, Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/aa055276-2419-11e9-8ce6-5db4543da632
Other Related Sources:
Carey, Teresa, “Should We Genetically Engineer Carbon-Hungry Trees?”, Freethink, https://www.freethink.com/articles/genetically-modified-trees