In the uphill battle that is climate change, scientists are leaving no stone unturned in order to find solutions that could turn the situation around - and genetically engineered organisms can help tackle this problem.
A team of scientists from the United States and Israel proposed a novel method of removing carbon dioxide that uses Synthetic & Systems Biology (SSB). In a paper first published in the journal BioDesign Research, researchers detail how genetically engineered organisms can help in significantly reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide footprints.
The study suggests a number of ways in which scientifically modifying certain plant phenotypes can be further advanced in addressing climate change.
Re-Engineering Plants to Reduce CO2 Footprints
Researchers propose that SSB can be used to modulate some paths of the fast carbon cycle - the movement of carbon through Earth's biosphere - which is responsible for about 120 gigatons of carbon movement every year. In the proposal, genetic modification of particular plant characteristics such as biomass yield, root depth, and water- and nitrogen-use efficiency rates. The scientists behind the study, however, noted the need for a better understanding of ecosystem dynamics to better implement these changes and observe their impact.
Additionally, plant synthetic biology can create a more robust environment, increasing agricultural productivity, and help against climate change by ameliorating the impacts of precipitation extremes. Researchers cited an example in the growing of Golden Rice by the Philippine Department of Agriculture, a measure taken to combat the nation's malnutrition problem. Agricultural products like Golden Rice have been engineered to be more resistant to flooding and resistance to drought.
In the proposal, researchers also cited upcoming technologies in plants that could also contribute to curbing carbon emissions. One of which is the addition of nitrogen fixation capabilities to nonleguminous crop plants in hopes of reducing denitrification rates. Legumes and other species of trees can maintain bacteria in their root nodules that allow conversion of atmospheric nitrogen gas into plant-usable nitrogen. Cereals like oat and wheat, however, do not have this innate ability. Another is in the genetic modification of organisms to decrease atmospheric methane. Researchers argue that while the concentration of methane is about 2 orders lower compared to CO2, methane's impact is about 25 times greater compared to CO2. The cultivation of methanotrophs - methane consuming organisms - creates a feasible treatment system.
A Holistic Technological Roadmap
Researchers also stressed in their paper that "Any roadmap must include plans for confronting and resolving serious ecological and societal challenges before potential technological solutions can be fully realized and deployed."
Stressing the need to gain a better understanding of ecosystem dynamics and their impact on the client, the proposal lists a number of considerations in the development of future technologies. This includes creating informed decisions based on "careful assessment and evaluation of benefits and risks of different options," as well as the improved understanding of biological engineering at varying scales. Researchers argue that results drawn from microbes in Petri dishes might not yield the same results when implemented on a larger scale, such as a bioreactor or industrial-scale fermenter.