Plants, especially trees, are an important factor in the CO2 cycle. Large forests act as CO2 sinks and play a role that should not be underestimated in the fight against climate change. A startup called “Living Carbon” now wants to modify trees so that they not only grow faster, but can also absorb more CO2.
Genetically modified trees
The idea of genetically modifying plants to increase their usefulness in relation to a specific purpose isn’t exactly new. This has been practiced in agriculture for decades and has been controversial for just as long.
The idea of modifying entire forests in a similar way is a little more exotic. But Living Carbon aims to do just that. The ‘improved’ trees must then be able to photosynthesize more efficiently and store CO2 for longer. The company has also reported initial successes, though the associated research has yet to go through the peer review process.
Photosynthesis is a process without which life on Earth would be unthinkable. But it certainly has improvement potential. This is because during photosynthesis, toxic waste products are produced, which in turn must be excreted through a process called photorespiration. This requires a relatively large amount of energy. Ultimately, only about 75 percent of the absorbed carbon can be stored permanently.
Living Carbon aims to improve this efficiency using genes from pumpkin plants and green algae. To do this, the company’s researchers extracted genes from the plants, which they used to modify hybrid poplars to have a significantly lower photorespiration rate. The trees also need to grow faster and gain a foothold in soil that is actually not suitable for the species. The startup’s research concluded that the growth rate can be improved by a factor of 1.5 and that photosynthesis is more efficient, at least under laboratory conditions.
Probationary time in the practical exam?
Together with Oregon State University, the company has now planted 600 trees. Living Carbon is also working on other projects to test the performance of the improved trees. For example, it must be tested to what extent the trees can also be planted in polluted areas.
Trees act as a natural CO2 store. However, the CO2 bound in this way is also released back into the atmosphere when a tree dies. Living Carbon also wants to start at this point, with adjustments that slow down the decomposition of the plants and bind more CO2 in the soil.