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The Revolutionary Concept of “Super Trees”: Hope or Hype?

Trees in forest

Can trees be the key to saving our planet from the devastating effects of climate change? Living Carbon, a Silicon Valley startup, thinks so. With a groundbreaking approach to biotech, super trees, they’re engineering trees that can grow faster, capture more carbon, and resist decay – all in the name of cooling our planet. But is this the answer we’ve been waiting for, or just another buzzworthy trend? Let’s find out.

Photosynthesis: Lessons from Ancient Ferns

Patrick Mellor, chief technology officer of Living Carbon, draws inspiration from an intriguing tale about Azolla ferns. These diminutive plants thrived millions of years ago, contributing to a cooler climate. Mellor believes that if plants can save the world once, they can do it again. However, rather than waiting for fortuitous circumstances to arise, he aims to engineer an “anthropogenic Azolla event” that can be activated at will.

Living Carbon's Ambitious Endeavor

Living Carbon’s vision encompasses designing trees that outpace their natural counterparts in carbon absorption and growth, while also developing resistance to decay. In a groundbreaking move, the company planted its first genetically modified “photosynthesis-enhanced” poplar trees in Georgia, making it the first forest in the United States to host such engineered trees. However, many uncertainties remain, including the trees’ impact on the surrounding ecosystem, the spread of their genes, and their actual carbon sequestration capabilities.

The Promise and Skepticism

Living Carbon has already sold carbon credits for its new forest, catering to individuals seeking to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. The company also plans to collaborate with larger corporations in the future. Nonetheless, experts studying forest health and tree photosynthesis express doubts about the trees’ ability to deliver on their promises. Even Steve Strauss, a renowned tree geneticist from Oregon State University, who briefly advised Living Carbon, acknowledges the uncertainty surrounding their effectiveness.

Roots of an Idea: Supercharging Photosynthesis

Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign achieved a significant breakthrough in photosynthesis in 2019. They tackled the problem posed by RuBisCO, an enzyme that inadvertently binds with oxygen during carbon absorption, leading to the release of carbon back into the atmosphere. By enhancing this process, they minimised the loss of carbon through a phenomenon known as photorespiration.

Conclusion

While the concept of “super trees” is exciting, we must approach it with caution. Living Carbon’s vision to engineer trees with exceptional carbon absorption is admirable, but the long-term impact is unknown. As we race against time to combat climate change, we must ensure that such endeavors are not only successful but also sustainable. With careful research and consideration, we can harness the power of nature to save our planet without harming our precious ecosystems.

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