Improving trees’ capacity to trap CO2? Living Carbon claims to do just that!

The biotech startup is actively combating climate change by applying genetic enhancements to trees, enabling them to capture and store higher amounts of carbon dioxide.

Forests, covering nearly a third of the Earth’s landmass, play a crucial role in absorbing and retaining carbon dioxide while producing oxygen, a delicate ecological balance. However, this equilibrium faces numerous threats, such as large-scale deforestation and the unchecked burning of fossil fuels, which contribute to an excess of climate-warming CO2 in the atmosphere.

Maddie Hall, CEO of the Bay Area-based biotech company Living Carbon, acknowledges this disruption to our biosphere’s delicate ecosystem. She states, “We’ve thrown that system within our biosphere, which is in and of itself an ecosystem, out of balance.”

To rectify this, Living Carbon is pioneering the development of genetically modified poplar trees. These specialised trees are cultivated within a controlled greenhouse environment on the Peninsula.

Yuman Tao, Living Carbon’s Chief Science Officer and Synthetic Biologist, explains their approach: “What we’re trying to add to the carbon capture picture is to harness the inherent capabilities of plants.”

These genetically engineered young trees are designed to combat climate change by growing faster and storing more CO2. Genetic enhancements are employed to optimise their carbon capture and storage capabilities.

Living Carbon utilises advanced biotech tools to enhance the growth rate, carbon capture efficiency, and climate resilience of these trees. Hall highlights this as she showcases the company’s East Bay laboratory to CBS News Bay Area.

The scientific team focuses on boosting these trees’ photosynthetic capabilities. They accomplish this by introducing genes from other plants, including algae, into the poplar’s DNA. According to the company, their seedlings can accumulate 50% more biomass and capture over twice the carbon per acre.

Living Carbon is now conducting outdoor tests of its modified trees on underutilised and damaged land, including a bottomland hardwood site in Georgia and an abandoned mine site in Ohio.

“We specifically focus on planting those trees not on land where trees are growing well, but where there’s been some sort of human disturbance,” Hall explains.

However, critics, such as the Global Justice Ecology Project, express concerns about potential threats posed by these modified trees, including unintended consequences on forest ecosystems. Hall emphasises that safeguards are in place, underscoring the urgency of addressing climate change.

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