Genetically modified (GM) trees with increased photosynthesis capacity will soon appear in the southeastern United States. The idea of scientists is that fast-growing trees will become even more efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and help mitigate the climate crisis.
Photos from open sources
This project is being implemented by the Californian biotechnology company Living Carbon.
The start-up recently published a study with Oregon State University that says GM trees store 53 percent more biomass than their standard counterparts, resulting in 27 percent more carbon dioxide absorption.
This study was done in a greenhouse under laboratory conditions, but hybrid trees have recently made their first appearance in the real world. As the New York Times reports, a slew of GM poplar seedlings were planted in an active forest area in southern Georgia earlier this month.
In addition to the Georgia site, the company also says they have signed agreements with private landowners to plant their GM trees in more than 1,200 hectares of forest in the southeastern United States and the Appalachians.
“We have passed the point where cutting emissions alone will be enough to rebalance our ecosystems and stabilize our planet. Now is the time for large-scale carbon removal. Our goal is to reduce 2 percent of global emissions by 2050 using approximately 5 million hectares of land,” said Living Carbon co-founder and CEO Maddie Hall.
“Today’s study is only the first step in demonstrating how ecological empowerment through the responsible use of biotechnology in trees can be a scalable and viable solution to the climate crisis,” she added.
GM trees work by increasing the natural ability of plants to photosynthesize more efficiently. With the help of the enzyme RuBisCO, plants and other photosynthetic organisms are able to absorb inorganic carbon (CO2) from the air and turn it into sugar for later use.
This process does not always go perfectly smoothly, and sometimes “defective” sugar chains containing oxygen molecules are formed. To remedy this, the plant undergoes photorespiration, which causes the plants to release some CO2 back into the atmosphere, wasting some of the energy generated by photosynthesis.
GM trees have been designed so that the harmful by-product is returned directly to the tree’s growth, thus wasting less energy. They acquire this ability through the addition of certain genes from plants and algae, which naturally have alternative photorespiration bypasses.
Genetic modification is often one of those hot topics of concern. Experts from the Global Justice environmental project opposed Living Carbon’s plans, arguing that the long-term risks associated with “GM trees, their pollen or seeds to forests, wildlife, or human health are unknown.”
For their part, Living Carbon claims to have taken many steps to reduce the risk of “unintended consequences” and believe there are many precautions in place. Whether this small company can make any significant contribution to the growing climate crisis or not is another matter.