In what represents a potential breakthrough in scientific approaches to reducing the impact of climate change, scientists have created genetically-modified trees that do not emit a gas that contributes to poor air quality and global warming, without harming the health of the trees. Poplar trees give off isoprene, particularly when they are under stress like they would be during rapid changes in temperature or during a drought. Isoprene interacts with other substances to form ozone and types of aerosol, which have negative consequences on weather patterns. As poplar trees are widely used to create products like paper and plywood, and are also used as biofuel, the widespread adoption of genetically-modified poplar trees may enable a more environmentally-friendly method of producing these vital resources.
According to the study, which was published in the journal PNAS, researchers observed the genetically-modified trees, which were planted in Oregon and Arizona, for a period of three to four years and concluded that they were capable of producing just as much biofuel as normal poplar trees, but without releasing harmful isoprene. Instead, the trees generated “alternative signaling pathways that appear to compensate for the loss of stress tolerance due to isoprene,” according to the lead author Russell Monson, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. The researchers believe that neither the health of the trees nor the quantity of biomass produced were negatively affected by the genetic modification, giving hope that in the future, trees could be optimized to better suit the needs of a global climate that has been modified by human activity. As biofuel derived from poplar trees can replace traditional fossil fuels in a sustainable way, these new findings could pave the way for transitioning to a more carbon-neutral future.
The trees’ genetic code was modified by a process called “RNA interference.” In this process, specific genes are targeted and suppressed; in this case, the genes that are responsible for the production of isoprene are disabled. Multiple technologies exist in order to modify the genetic code of living organisms, including CRISPR, a newer technology that allows for even more drastic and precise genetic modification. In fact, traditional breeding of species, which humans have done for thousands of years, is itself a form of genetic modification, though it is a much slower and less precise way of altering the genetic makeup of an organism.
When it comes to technologies that help to reduce the impact of climate change, the widespread planting of trees is often proposed as a method of mitigating carbon emissions, as trees use natural processes to store carbon and produce oxygen. However, planting a tremendous number of trees poses its own problems to ecosystems and the global climate, as not all of the gases released by trees benefit the environment. This is of particular concern given the advancement of technologies designed to autonomously plant large quantities of trees at a rate much greater than is possible with human labor, which is currently being deployed as a strategy for geo-engineering. As such, the future of harm reduction in connection with climate change may depend upon a combination of natural resources and cutting-edge technologies, as scientists of the future may be able to genetically optimize trees to maximize their beneficial impact on the environment. That being said, other strategies in addition to planting genetically-modified trees will surely be necessary in the fight against climate change, as carbon emissions continue to rise to increasingly-dangerous levels with no signs of stopping any time soon.