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GMOs restore lost carbon sinks in natural forests

The worldwide quest to reverse or at least stop the advance of climate change has certainly spurred many a fanciful innovation and forged more than a few odd duck alliances. But even with such creative thinking as a backdrop, it’s hard for some people to picture how a bit of genetic tinkering in forests can do much to combat climate change.

As it turns out, quite a bit can be accomplished that way. The results benefit the forestry and tourism industries, and the provincial Carbon Capture mission too.

How does that work, you might ask? Glad you asked because, yes, there’s an interesting tale to tell here.

A Forest with Two Destinies

The natural world contains numerous carbon stores. Carbon stores are classified as “sources” if they emit more carbon into the atmosphere than they absorb and store. They’re called “sinks” if they absorb more carbon than they emit. Healthy forests are carbon sinks.

However, when forests become unhealthy they convert from sinks to sources. For example, dying and dead trees can no longer absorb carbon. Worse, they are fuel for wildfires that release a lot of carbon into the air. Disturbed forest soil also releases carbon in the air. But there are other things that can convert a forest to a carbon source as well.

“Until recently, Canadian forests were a sink, according to the Canadian Forest Service,” reports the David Suzuki Foundation.

“Through increased fires, insect infestation and harvesting, Canadian forests have now become a net source of greenhouse gas emissions,” the report continued. “Global warming is expected to exacerbate the problem by increasing the likelihood of forest fires and insect infestations, such as the mountain pine beetle.”

The Big Villain is a Tiny Bug

Indeed, one of the forest genomics projects that Genome Alberta has been involved with for years supports ongoing mountain pine beetle research. That particularly nasty bug is responsible for killing large swaths of trees and sometimes even entire forests.

This video shows how a mountain pine beetle infestation altered the entire landscape of British Columbia, for example.

But finding ways to turn the tide in mountain pine beetle and other infestations is extremely challenging, especially since the need is urgent and the time to respond is short.

Established tactics in climate change response via GMOs, such as genetically modifying trees to be resistant or repellent to certain bugs, are being explored. So are tactics used to render other pests sterile, as is the case in the current efforts in gene-editing and self-replicating gene-editing drives to destroy Zika virus-carrying mosquitoes.

The Secret in the Trees

Other scientific explorations and experiments are also underway, such as current studies to determine which trees naturally sequester the most carbon. This video explains how researchers are identifying which trees in Canada are best at this job.  

Once the top performing tree species are identified, geneticists can take at least four different approaches to making forests stronger and better carbon sinks:

  1. Add genes from tree species that perform high in carbon absorption to tree species that do not perform as high to increase the area’s overall carbon absorption rate.
  2. Plant more of the high-performing tree species in forests to improve the overall carbon absorption rate over time.
  3. Add genes from tree species that perform high in carbon absorption to other plants that grow faster and in higher volume than trees. These plants could grow and spread rapidly and increase a diminished forest’s carbon absorption rates while new replacement trees grow and eventually take over.
  4. Identify which genes in trees are crucial to carbon absorption and then search for those genes in other plants that can either be turned on or augmented to perform better.

Taking such smart and innovative steps now is especially important as more forests are being rapidly lost to fires, infestations and, yes, even to climate change. 

Lost trees and forests have a huge impact on climate change but that also hurts the tourism and forestry industries. Thus, the economic value in ensuring forests remain healthy is also an important consideration.

There are other secrets in the forest to discover and eventually use in the fight against climate change too. And much of it will be accessible and manageable through genomics.

Since time before recorded history, forests have labored at maintaining a balance in the carbon in the atmosphere. Because mankind is largely responsible for disrupting that balance, it is only fair that we help the forests bring carbon back into control.

GMOs restore lost carbon sinks in natural forests

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