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TITLE:  Biotech & Global Climate Change
        Can Engineering Plants Play A Role In Slowing Down Global Warming?
        A Biotech Approach To Global Climate Change
SOURCE: Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, USA
        http://pewagbiotech.org/buzz/display.php3?StoryID=106
DATE:   Jul 22, 2003

---------------- archive: www.genet-info.org/services.html ---------------


Biotech & Global Climate Change
Can Engineering Plants Play A Role In Slowing Down Global Warming?

A Biotech Approach To Global Climate Change

Can biotechnology save the planet? When most people hear that question,
they probably think about genetically modified food or new drugs. But the
same technologies that are being developed for farms and pharmaceuticals
have scientists speculating that biotechnology could hold some promise
for moderating global warming caused by the greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse effect is caused when more solar energy is trapped in the
Earth's atmosphere than can escape into space. Carbon-containing gases
like carbon dioxide and methane are high on the list of compounds that
tend to hold heat in the atmosphere -- so the more of these gases in the
atmosphere created by doing things like burning fossil fuels, the warmer
things get.

"The more biomass you produce, that means more carbon that's put into the
soil." -- Charles Rice As the world continues to rely on fossil fuels for
energy, the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere continues to
increase as it overwhelms nature's ability to remove it. As a result,
anything that takes the carbon compounds out of the atmosphere - directly
or indirectly -- would help slow down the greenhouse effect to some
degree. And, that's where biotechnology may come into play.

Generally speaking, there are two fronts in the battle to reduce carbon
in the atmosphere: 1) releasing less carbon into the air by burning less
fossil fuels and 2) locking up, or "sequestering," more carbon from the
air into the ground and oceans.

Researchers are focusing on several possible ways biotechnology might
help on both fronts. One way is to employ GM plants that are already in
use -- but for different reasons. GM crops already being designed to
withstand wind could help sequester more carbon into soils, says agronomy
professor Charles Rice of Kansas State University.

For example, corn that is engineered to grow thicker, woodier stalks uses
more carbon. The carbon is needed to make all the woody lignin and
cellulose that makes them thicker and stiffer. Lignin and cellulose are
slow to decompose in the soil, so, says Rice, "The more biomass you
produce, that means more carbon that's put into the soil."

The same trait could be added to other crops with the express purpose of
locking up more carbon instead of making a sturdier plant. Imagine, for
instance, a tomato plant that's woodier, but yields the same fruit.
However, developing such a tomato may not be such a simple matter,
because any time crops are bred for one trait (either conventionally or
through biotechnology) there may be unacceptable trade-offs in fruit
quality or environmental impact of the crop.

"We can't rely on one technology because some ideas will work, some won't
work, and some of them are bad ideas for other environmental reasons." --
Jeff Fielder Nevertheless, efforts to increase carbon sequestration
aren't focused solely on crop plants. Other plants that may help
sequester carbon are grasses, says Scott Angle, a microbiologist at the
University of Maryland. The Department of Energy's Center for Research on
Enhancing Carbon Sequestration in Terrestrial Ecosystems (CSiTE) is
studying grasses, trees and all manner organic and inorganic ways to
sequester carbon in an effort to enhance carbon capture and long-term
sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems .

Jeff Fiedler, a climate policy specialist with the Natural Resources
Defense Council, says research to engineer plants for climate purposes is
all well and good, but these efforts don't address what needs to be done
today. "I really don't want to rain on anybody's parade, because we need
all the help we can get" he says. "But, in the U.S. the two biggest
emitting sectors are power plants and transportation. There is no way we
are going to address global climate change without reducing the emissions
in these sectors. And biotechnology is unlikely to develop a silver
bullet for these two sectors."

Even though it may not be a "silver bullet", Angle says that "no till"
agriculture -- the use of more herbicide-resistant GM crops to control
weeds instead of tilling the ground -- can help reduce emissions and
sequester carbon. Weed tilling not only uses up tractor fuel (which
releases carbon into the atmosphere), but it exposes soil carbon to
oxygen, with which it reacts and escapes back into the atmosphere. Angle
believes no till crops offer a double benefit.

Engineered soil microbes may also help to sequester more carbon, says
Rice. Like every living thing, bacteria and fungi use carbon in nearly
every molecule. If these could be made to take on just a little more
carbon, they could add up to a lot more carbon sequestration.
Particularly promising in the subterranean side of this matter are fungi,
which create a lot of biomass underground, but are not well understood.

Looking at ways to use fungi from another angle is fungus geneticist
Linda Lasure of Battelle at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a
Department of Energy Laboratory. Lasure is trying to see if fungus might
be made better at breaking down cellulose to create usable fuels out of
agricultural waste: essentially, ethanol or hydrogen out of husks. She
can imagine someday driving a car with an electric motor and a hydrogen
fuel-cell power plant that you fuel with grass clippings from your yard.

"(It's) safe to say, however, that in the future biotech will be directly
aimed at greenhouse gas mitigation -- CO2 and the other gases." -- Blaine
Metting Today even the few experimental hydrogen fuel cell cars on the
road get their hydrogen from fossil fuels -- which neither helps reduce
carbon or U.S. dependence on oil importation. Both are goals of the U.S.
Department of Energy, explains Lasure.

The fungi that are best understood are the yeasts, which we've been using
for centuries to create fuels such as ethanol and other alcohols, Lasure
explains. But it's another kind of fungus that holds the most promise,
she says: filamentous fungus commonly found in soils. Unfortunately these
are also the least understood fungi. That's why she's paying close
attention to them now to identify species and discover what they can do.

These sorts of possibilities combined with increasing concerns about
global warming have created the potential for biotechnology to play a
role in mitigating greenhouse gases. In fact, efforts are now underway to
deliberately find biotechnological applications -- instead of coming
across them as afterthoughts, as has been done in the past.

"All of this derives to date from research and development aimed at
agriculture, industrial processing and environmental clean-up," says
Blaine Metting, also of Battelle, Pacific Northwest National Lab.
Metting's specialty is looking at how hydrogen can be made from microbes.
"(It's) safe to say, however, that in the future biotech will be directly
aimed at greenhouse gas mitigation -- CO2 and the other gases."

Even though work will be aimed at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions,
Fiedler notes that it's important to remember any technology being
developed today is unlikely to bear fruit for 20 to 50 years.

"One thing we are often worried about is people coming up with grand
technical solutions that say 'if you just wait 20 years, we'll solve the
problem for you,'" he says. "We don't want to wait -- we don't have that
kind of time. And, we can't rely on one technology because some ideas
will work, some won't work, and some of them are bad ideas for other
environmental reasons."

"That's not to say that biotechnology won't play a role in mitigating
greenhouse gases," Fiedler says. "But not all these things are going to
be judged socially beneficial when all the tradeoffs are considered. We
need to reduce emissions now -- there is no technological silver bullet
that will change that."

For more information, please visit theDOE cSITE; the Rice Lab; the Angle
Lab; the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; and the National
Resources Defense Council online.




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