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A Very Peppy Poplar Engineered by a Biotech Firm

In lab studies, a California biotech company’s genetically engineered Poplar grew more than 1.5 times faster than unmodified Poplar, indicating that the company’s goal of creating fast-growing trees that can quickly absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide is on track. Plant scientists celebrate the news, but warn that much more research is needed before altered trees can begin to aid in the fight against climate change.

Tree planting has been championed by scientists and environmentalists as a promising and easily expanded approach to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the primary driver of global warming. Trees, which are nearly half carbon by dry weight, collect gas from the air and convert it to stable carbon forms like wood and roots. However, a number of variables limit how quickly trees absorb carbon.

The pace of photosynthesis, the biological process by which plants convert carbon dioxide into sugars and, eventually, wood, is a major restriction. Almost all trees use an inefficient form of photosynthesis that creates phosphoglycolate, a toxic byproduct that the plants must eliminate through a process called photorespiration. This consumes energy that may otherwise be used to promote growth.

To get around the obstacle, Living Carbon researchers utilised a bacteria to inject genes from pumpkin and green algae into Poplar trees. The trees were able to have decreased photorespiration rates and recycle carbon from phosphoglycolate into sugars that were necessary for growth thanks to the foreign genes. A similar feature was previously developed into tobacco plants by other researchers. The modified Poplar are being grown within a converted music recording studio in San Francisco by Living Carbon, which was created in 2019.

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