Is re-engineering life the solution to combat climate change?

Is re-engineering life the solution to combat climate change?

The world has undergone significant transformations over billions of years, evolving from a lifeless planet into the thriving and fertile Earth we know today. However, human activities are now causing further changes by releasing greenhouse gases that are driving drastic shifts in our climate.

One potential solution to combat climate change lies in the field of “engineering biology,” which utilizes genetic technology to engineer biological tools for specific problems. This emerging field has already achieved notable success with mRNA vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Engineering biology not only has the potential to help us adapt to climate change but also to mitigate its effects.

In a recent paper published in Nature Communications, we explored various ways in which engineering biology can aid in the fight against climate change. We also discussed how governments and policymakers can ensure that society benefits from this technology.

We identified four key areas where engineering biology could contribute to climate change mitigation. Firstly, it could help develop more efficient methods for producing synthetic fuels that can directly replace fossil fuels. Current synthetic fuels are often made from valuable crops like corn and soybeans, making them expensive. Research in engineering biology aims to produce synthetic fuel from agricultural waste, which would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Secondly, engineering biology could enable cost-effective capture of greenhouse gas emissions from industrial facilities, construction, and agriculture. These captured emissions could then be used for “biomanufacturing” valuable products such as industrial chemicals or biofuels.

The third area involves replacing emission-intensive production methods. For instance, companies are already using “precision fermentation” to produce synthetic milk that avoids methane emissions associated with the dairy industry. Other companies have developed microbes that can fix nitrogen in soil, reducing the need for fossil fuel-based fertilizers.

Lastly, engineering biology could directly capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Engineered bacteria that consume atmospheric carbon or plants bred to sequester more carbon in their roots could potentially help reduce greenhouse gas levels.

However, apart from technological and economic challenges, the social acceptance of these ideas remains uncertain. Given the futuristic nature of some of these emerging climate responses, it is crucial for researchers to be transparent and responsive to public attitudes.

The feasibility of these ideas also depends on factors such as time, funding, and research. Bringing a new product to market requires significant investment and careful research. Solar power, for example, took decades of government support before it became a cost-competitive source of electricity.

Currently, the engineering biology sector attracts significant investor capital, particularly in the medical, pharmaceutical, chemical, and agricultural sectors. However, applications primarily focused on reducing greenhouse emissions are less likely to attract private investment. Therefore, government or philanthropic support will be necessary to nurture climate-friendly applications through development and commercialization.

Determining which engineering biology applications deserve government assistance is challenging at this stage. Policymakers need to continuously evaluate the social and technical merits of proposed applications. To effectively utilize engineering biology in the fight against climate change, policymakers must engage with the field over time.

We propose that government support should include five elements. Firstly, continued funding for basic scientific research that generates new knowledge and potential mitigation tools. Secondly, public deliberation on engineering biology applications to ensure acceptance and understanding. Thirdly, regulations should align with public interest and prevent existing industries from using regulations to hinder new competitors.

Fourthly, governments should support the commercialization and scale-up of promising technologies that reduce greenhouse emissions. This can be achieved through direct funding or incentives such as carbon pricing, tax credits, or environmental regulations that make private investment profitable. Lastly, long-term procurement policies should be considered for large-scale deployment to achieve climate goals.

Governments worldwide are striving to position their countries as leaders in the emerging green economy. Specific plans for engineering biology have been implemented by countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. To ensure economic and ecological success, these interventions must work with evolving technology.

Policymakers can approach this uncertainty by conducting sophisticated assessments of different technologies and investing in a diverse portfolio, acknowledging that some ventures may fail. Alternatively, they can create technology-neutral instruments like tax credits and reverse auctions, allowing private industry to determine successful applications.

Engineering biology holds the potential to significantly contribute to climate mitigation. However, its success depends on the support of both the public and policymakers. Given the high stakes involved, there is a collective responsibility to understand and harness the potential of this technology.