The California-based biotechnology company Living Carbon has planted genetically modified poplar trees in a forest in southern Georgia that the firm claims can grow wood faster and remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than their unmodified counterparts.
The company intends to deploy its poplar as a large-scale solution to climate change. Living Carbon has yet to publish peer-reviewed papers, and its publicly reported results come from a greenhouse trial that lasted only a few months. This has led some experts to stop well short of fully endorsing the company’s technology.
Living Carbon’s poplars start their lives in a lab in Hayward, California. There, biologists tinker with how the trees conduct photosynthesis, the series of chemical reactions plants use to weave sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugars and starches. The researchers have used a crude technique known as the gene gun method, which essentially blasts foreign genes into the trees’ chromosomes. This approach has allowed Living Carbon to modify the poplar’s photosynthesis process, enabling them to ingest more carbon dioxide and grow faster than unmodified trees.
Living Carbon has attracted criticism from environmental groups such as the Global Justice Ecology Project, which has called the company’s trees “growing threats” to forests and has expressed alarm that the federal government allowed the poplars to evade regulation, opening the door to commercial plantings much sooner than is typical for engineered plants.
Flavr Savr tomato's debut in 1994 paved the path for the genetic alteration of food crops, but there has been slower adoption of genetically engineered trees. Only in China have vast numbers of trees modified in a laboratory been planted.
There have been many decades of research dedicated to optimizing photosynthesis. In 2019, a group of researchers led by University of Illinois geneticist Donald Ort claimed to have improved the efficiency of tobacco plants' photosynthesis through genetic modification. Tobacco seedlings grew by nearly 40 percent after pumpkin and algal genes were introduced to stimulate the recycling of toxins into additional carbohydrates.
At a symposium for climate technology, Maddie Hall, co-founder of Living Carbon, met Patrick Mellor, who would later become the company's other co-founder. Funded by venture capital firms, Mr. Mellor and Ms.
In 2019, Hall and Mr. Mellor founded Living Carbon with the help of her tech industry connections, such as OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. Those who think GM trees can slow global warming have shown interest in the company, helping it secure $36 million in venture money.
Still in the Early Stages
Living Carbon’s poplars are still at an early stage of development, and the company has a long way to go before it can claim success. Nevertheless, the company is marketing carbon credits based on the amount of carbon its trees will soak up.
If the company can successfully commercialize its poplar, it could pave the way for the wider adoption of genetically modified trees as a tool to combat climate change.
The development of genetically modified trees has been contentious, with critics expressing concerns about the environmental impact of modified trees and the lack of regulation surrounding their use. However, proponents argue that genetically modified trees could help address the urgent need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce the impact of climate change.
As the world struggles to address the ongoing climate crisis, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need new and innovative solutions to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.
The development of genetically modified trees could provide one such solution, although it remains to be seen whether Living Carbon’s poplar will be a viable tool in the fight against climate change. In any case, the need to find new and innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has never been more urgent.