The recent IPCC report and the UN report on climate change make it clear: it is high time to work on something to combat the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. There are hundreds of startups working on that ‘something’.
Some are working on direct air capture technologies, such as Climeworks, which raised $110 million in April. These engineering solutions extract carbon from the atmosphere using expensive and complicated machinery and inject it back into the ground for long-term storage.
But there is a more efficient way to capture carbon that has been around for much longer: photosynthesis. Nature-based solutions tend to focus on this approach; think of tree planting or soil restoration. These have been championed by non-profit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and American Forests.
In the world of climate mitigation, nature-based solutions are cheap and plentiful, but are seen as short-term carbon removal, as much of the carbon is at risk of being released back into the atmosphere if a fire strikes through a forest or a forest. man cuts down the trees. Engineered solutions are much more sustainable and measurable, but expensive and scarce.
Living Carbon, a San Francisco-based startup that moved out of stealth mode in March, is working at the cutting edge of nature, developing solutions for climate change. The company is genetically manipulating trees so that they can store more carbon.
“Plants have the unique power to extract carbon from the atmosphere: photosynthesis,” said Yumin Tao, Chief Science Officer at Living Carbon.
The startup wants to increase that power by creating trees with a higher photosynthesis capacity.
The idea is to “take advantage of that natural process…with the added storage and added durability of a tech solution,” said CEO Maddie Hall of her company.
Growing and developing factories to get bigger and stronger is not new. It’s something the food and agriculture world has been doing for a long time. Even the specific scientific innovation that Living Carbon uses – enzymes to bypass the inefficient biological pathway called photorespiration, which causes plants to release some CO2 back into the atmosphere, wasting some of the energy produced by photosynthesis – has been an area of research for decades. But instead of using those tools to grow more food, easier and cheaper, Living Carbon turns that biological innovation into carbon sequestration.
“I was fascinated by this idea of, could you orient a lot of the plant biotechnology work that is specifically used to focus on food supply, could you orient that towards solving a new problem: carbon removal?” said Hall.
Living Carbon’s real innovation was to utilize the genetically engineered photorespiration suppression process developed for tobacco plants in trees such as the hybrid poplar and Loblolly pines. According to Tao, Living Carbon has spliced genes for enzymes from pumpkins and algae in the trees so that the carbon dioxide is broken down in the chloroplast and results in a more efficient process of converting CO2 converted to sugar with less returned to the atmosphere. This process is based on a naturally occurring process found in certain more photosynthetically efficient plants called C4 plants, including corn and sorghum.
“More carbon fix means faster growth and bigger plants,” Tao said. And because, according to Tao, about 50% of a plant’s biomass is carbon, bigger plants means less carbon in the atmosphere.
In a research paper pending review by Living Carbon, an experiment in an indoor controlled growing environment found that trees genetically engineered with Living Carbon’s technology had a 53% increase in above-ground weight over the control plants over five months.
The next step is for Living Carbon to test its genetically engineered trees in practice. It has a four-year partnership with Oregon State University to continue researching its trees, and this month the company began planting with private landowners in Pennsylvania, Georgia and California.
Living Carbon works in the new nascent carbon economy. It will not make money by selling the genetically engineered trees to landowners, but will instead provide the trees for free and retain the rights to the carbon credits generated by the planting projects. It can then sell those credits to business buyers like Microsoft and Salesforce who have zero ambitions for their businesses. The landowners also receive an income share from the sale.
Organizations such as Verra and The Gold Standard are used to verify, evaluate and allocate carbon credits to projects. Because of the genetic improvements that make Living Carbon’s trees bigger and thus contain more carbon, they will get more credits than a regular tree project if this remains consistent.
“Landowners can now plant trees with elite genetics and grow faster than traditional trees,” Hall said. “It enhances growth for carbon removal purposes.”
Living Carbon is also working on CO reduction2 emissions from the other side by finding genes that slow down the decomposition process. Carbon stored in trees can never really be permanent as the trees are living organisms that will eventually die and are always at risk of unpredictable wildfires, but slowing the decomposition is one way to extend the life cycle, reducing CO2.2 that are released and the amount of highly flammable kindling in the forest.
“If you lower the global degradation rate, you also increase the carbon stock in the soil globally and keep that carbon out of the atmosphere longer,” said Patrick Mellor, co-founder of Living Carbon.
It is also investigating whether it can grow trees on land that was previously unable to support them, such as old mining areas, by creating trees that have a higher tolerance for nickel or other heavy metals. According to Mellor, Living Carbon has shown that some of the trees in her study have higher nickel tolerance and a lower degradation rate, but those studies are still in the testing phase for indoor growth.
Trees are one of our largest and most popular tools to fight the climate crisis. Using human innovation to make them even more powerful, the three-year-old company, led by Felicis Ventures, has attracted a $15 million Series A with the participation of Lowercarbon Capital, Goat Capital, Prelude Ventures and others.
“The ability for us to use the highly energy-efficient nature of biology in a way that is permanently capable of sequestering carbon, that’s the holy grail,” Hall said.