The following is an excerpt of an article at the website Inverse explaining how genetically modified plants and trees could fight climate change.
Martin Bunzl is an optimistic pessimist. The Rutgers University professor, who studies the philosophy of science and climate change policy, doesn’t hold out hope that mankind will come up with a way to pull back emissions quickly enough to avoid disaster. But he does believe that a technology capable of pulling more carbon dioxide out of the air could turn things around. He’s not alone on this theoretical limb, but he is one of only a few public intellectuals suggesting that trees might be the once and future answer to our problems.
Bunzl also questions the idea that pulling carbon out of the air with chemical and mechanical systems will somehow one day become cheap enough to make sense on a massive scale. It’s fundamentally easier to put carbon dioxide out into the atmosphere than to call it back. Imagine all the resources and infrastructure that have gone into fossil fuel burning in human history — it would very likely take operations of that magnitude or larger to clean up the mess.
Here’s something that might just work, though: Using the techniques of modern genetic engineering, including CRISPR, to modify global plants so they take up carbon dioxide from the air more efficiently. “This is a seductively interesting option, because you get a self-replicating system which will continue once the changes propagate through living organisms to improve carbon dioxide uptake,” says Bunzl.
Biological systems are already many times more efficient than chemical systems at scrubbing CO2 from air, and there’s reason to believe they could get even better. A team of biochemists in Germany recently developed a new molecular transformation chain that, at least in the lab, is about 25 percent more efficient than the enzyme chain used in photosynthesis. A living system genetically engineered to use this pathway might metabolize carbon dioxide two or three times as fast as it otherwise would, the researchers predict, although this has not been tried and outcomes are uncertain.
But it’s theoretically possible that, if plants genetically modified in this way spread across the Earth, they would be not only enormously useful in pulling carbon from the air for biofuel, but also helpful for carbon capture and storage. Biomass produced by the plants might be sequestered long term either through extensive deep root systems, or through some sort of sequestration project.
Please visit the Inverse website to read the entire article.