Have You Heard Of GMO Trees?

Michelle Lu's picture

Did you know, forests are one of our planet’s greatest carbon sinks?

This means that they absorb an enormous amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change and the earth’s rising temperature. 

The poplar tree, standing tall and regal, is known for its fast-growing nature and its gray, white, or black bark. Living Carbon, a biotechnology firm in San Francisco, CA, genetically modified poplar trees. According to a four-month study conducted in their greenhouse, the engineered trees grew 53% larger than their normal counterparts and stored 27% more carbon dioxide.

In February 2023, the company also planted modified poplar trees in southern Georgia. This marks the first time in the United States that engineered trees have been planted outside of a controlled lab setting! Data from the trees planted outdoors, though, have yet to corroborate the results from greenhouse trials. 

Let’s continue reading to learn about the modified poplar trees and what this may mean for our climate-conscious future. 

How Are The Trees Modified?

All plants undergo photosynthesis, where sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide are transformed into glucose and oxygen. However, almost all trees release a toxic byproduct called phosphoglycolate in the process.

To remove this byproduct, trees must use up newly-produced energy from photosynthesis in another step known as photorespiration, which does not produce any energy and releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

To prevent plants from wasting their energy, Living Carbon engineered their poplar trees with genes found in squash and green algae. First tested in tobacco plants, the foreign genes convert the toxic byproduct produced by trees into sugars, so that more energy can be used for capturing carbon and tree growth.

Researchers from Living Carbon are planting their poplar trees on private land that has been previously disturbed, such as abandoned coal mines in Pennsylvania. The modified trees will be planted between natives like sweet gum and bald cypress to boost biodiversity and maintain soil fertility. 

What Are The Concerns? 

Plant biologist Donal Ort from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, suggests the engineered poplar trees may not thrive as well outdoors or will require more water and fertilizer to maintain their fast growth.

Many sustainable forestry organizations have also banned engineered trees from being planted in forests. According to the New York Times, “The Global Justice Ecology Project argued that Living Carbon’s trees could…[interfere] with efforts to protect and regenerate forests.”

Though there may be opposing opinions regarding genetically modified poplar trees, one thing is for sure: they hold the potential to lower greenhouse gasses in our environment at a faster rate. Living Carbon’s endeavor is certainly an innovative approach to the ongoing climate crisis. 

Sources: NY Times, Smithsonian, Science, Scientific American, Living Carbon