Genetically Modified Trees Are Taking Root to Capture Carbon

A start-up created the plants to help combat the climate crisis, but they have so far only been tested in a lab setting

Four trees
Living Carbon's modified trees on the left next to unmodified trees on the right. Living Carbon

A start-up has created poplar trees that are genetically engineered to grow larger and suck up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than standard trees do. This month, workers planted rows of these poplars in southern Georgia, kicking off the company’s plan to revolutionize forestry.

The San Francisco-based venture, called Living Carbon, intends to plant 4 to 5 million trees by the middle of next year, which they say will help with the looming climate crisis. This may be the first time genetically modified trees have been planted in a U.S. forest outside of a research trial or commercial fruit orchard, per the New York Times’ Gabriel Popkin. 

“Living Carbon is our answer to the question: Are we capable of storing carbon with the same ingenuity that allowed us to release it?” writes Maddie Hall, Living Carbon’s CEO, in a blog post. “In short, yes. We can enter a new ecological and economic age where we use the power of plants to capture and store more carbon.” 

When plants photosynthesize, they convert carbon into sugars and nutrients that are eventually consumed by all living organisms. But they also produce a toxic byproduct, which must be broken down during the energy-intensive process of photorespiration, Yumin Tao, the company’s vice president of biotechnology, told Interesting Engineering’s Grant Currin last year. 

“This not only wastes energy but also loses a lot of fixed carbon in the form of CO2, which gets released into the air again,” Tao told the publication. “It’s a wasteful process that a lot of plants do.” Living Carbon has reduced photorespiration in its poplars, instead channeling the energy into growth, he says.

The trees have three genes inserted to achieve this, including one from squash and one from green algae, per New Scientist’s James Dinneen. But the company has yet to show its modified trees can capture more carbon in a real-world setting. Its only publicly available data comes from a study in a greenhouse that lasted for only a few months and has yet to be peer reviewed, per the Times

“Their claims seem bold based on very limited real-world data,” Andrew Newhouse, a conservation biologist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, tells the publication. 

Still, the study reported the modified poplars grew as much as 53 percent larger in five months compared to the unmodified ones, capturing 27 percent more carbon dioxide, per a statement.

young trees in little plastic containers under pink light
Modified poplar trees grow under light conditions for photosynthesis enhancement. Living Carbon's trees captured up to 27 percent more carbon dioxide than standard trees in a laboratory experiment. Living Carbon

Now, the company hopes its other field trials in locations such as Oregon and Pennsylvania will show similar successes. It’s currently focused on planting on private lands, where fewer roadblocks exist, per the Times

“We specifically focus on land where trees otherwise wouldn’t be planted, like abandoned mine lands—areas where there isn’t an existing, rich ecosystem that’s allowing for a large amount of carbon removal right now,” Hall tells Petya Trendafilova of Carbon Herald

In 2021, Living Carbon received a $500,000 grant from the Department of Energy, which predicted that the genetically engineered trees could remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere if planted at scale, writes John Fialka for E&E News. Eventually, the company wants to sell credits for carbon offsets to organizations looking to reach net-zero emissions. 

“If we keep doubling the number of trees we plant every year, by 2030 we will have planted enough trees that over the lifetime of the project would remove 1.66 percent of 2021 global emissions, which would be over 600 megatons, I believe,” Hall tells Carbon Herald

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