Scientists gene-edit plants for enhanced CO2 capture and storage

A biotech startup incorporated photosynthesis enhancement trait to help trees grow faster.

Living Carbon, a biotech company based in San Francisco, USA, is proposing an old-fashioned way to fight climate change – by planting trees – but employs an innovative approach to plants. 

Its scientists create genetically modified trees – which they call “super trees” – that absorb more carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere than normal trees.

Living Carbon works to obtain trees that are more efficient at photosynthesis, a process in which plants use CO2 and sunlight to create sugar and oxygen, as a byproduct. To achieve this, it diverts more carbon back into the plants’ biomass to enhance its growth – bigger and faster – while keeping more carbon locked inside.

This approach is described well in a study published in the Swiss scientific journal MDPI in March 2023. Research says that gene-edited poplars, for example, store up to 27% more CO2 and their biomass grows up to 53%. 

The company estimates that if 1.6 million hectares of these trees are planted by 2030, they could suck more than 600 megatons of CO2 out of the planet’s atmosphere.

This is about 1.6% of global yearly emissions.

As part of the experiment, Living Carbon has planted around 120 hectares of gene-hacked poplar trees, which have larger and deeper roots for greater absorption capabilities. A metal accumulation trait enables trees to absorb more metals in their roots and stem.

Given that those trees grow in greenhouses, it is not clear whether they can survive in real-world conditions or what is their impact on soil in the long run.

“We utilize land that is already abandoned or degraded, like abandoned mineland or agricultural land. This means emissions will not go elsewhere, and we limit land use change,” the company assures on its website. 

Earlier, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies proposed to grow genetically-engineered crops like rice, wheat, and corn – for the same purposes. It has not proven yet that its idea is viable.

Living Carbon was founded by Maddie Hall and Patrick Mellor in 2020. In February 2022, they raised 15 million dollars in the series A round of funding from FloodGate, Felicis Ventures, Goat Capital, Homebrew, LowerCarbon Capital, and Prelude Ventures. 


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