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Biotech Earth Science

Genetically Altering Trees To Sequester More Carbon 279

An anonymous reader writes "Forests of genetically altered trees and other plants could sequester several billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year and so help ameliorate global warming, according to estimates published in the October issue of BioScience. The study, by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, outlines a variety of strategies (PDF) for augmenting the processes that plants use to sequester carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into long-lived forms of carbon, first in vegetation and ultimately in soil."
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Genetically Altering Trees To Sequester More Carbon

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  • When we've turned all the carbon in to trees?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Penguinisto ( 415985 )

      It'll eventually (in a few million years) end up being some really bad-assed coal?

      It does bring up a point, though - for a movement that utterly detests genetically-modifying things like food, I wonder how the overly-eco crowd will react to genetically modified trees... 'course, I'm thinking they'll just turn around and complain that humanity should instead modify its own behavior.

      • by FriendlyLurker ( 50431 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @02:53PM (#33771454)

        ... 'course, I'm thinking they'll just turn around and complain that humanity should instead modify its own behavior.

        I for one am ready to pay my air breathing tax to Monsanto.

        How to use the Pay As You Breath (PAYB) Calculator:

        To predict your monthly PAYE tax, please enter: "Total lung capacity (TLC) is measured by adding together Inspiratory Reserve Volume (IRV), Tidal Volume (Vt), Expiratory Reserve Volume (ERV), and Residual Volume (RV) to come up with the formula, TLC=IRV + Vt + ERV + RV. Tidal Volume is the amount of air normally inhaled or exhaled. Inspiratory Reserve Volume is the amount of additional air that could be inhaled in order to completely fill up the lungs." Please enter these values from you spirometer readings, along with your age, weight, and physical condition - then hit next.

        • by PaulMeigh ( 1277544 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @03:39PM (#33771704)

          Pretty sure I'm below average on all of those metrics. Finally it pays off to be a smoker.

          • Or non-athletic - being nonactive I produce far less CO2 than those jocks.

            • During exercise, sure. But physically active humans are more efficient at processing and use of oxygen. I would like to see what actual numbers are involved with this and whether an at rest "jock" is going to be using more air than an at rest smoking couch potato. From a relative's experience with extreme obesity, he requires so much oxygen just to remain seated doing nothing that he is at the max mechanical limit for oxygen delivery (via an O2 tank). He is sucking in enough oxygen that you or I would end u
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by haruchai ( 17472 )

        Yes, humanity absolutely should modify its own behavior. The perils and pitfalls of our way of life have been known for a long time. Anyone who wants to claim ignorance can cry me a river. I made the decision to change my ways over 20 years ago and, yes, it did absolutely fucking suck - for about 3 months.
        After that, it just becomes part of day to day living - no big fucking deal.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TheKidWho ( 705796 )

      A global ice age hits the planet resulting in the death of the trees. Once the temperature becomes low enough and CO2 is allowed to build up in the atmosphere after millions of years, vegetation growth and the effects of the CO2 build up will end the ice age. This has happened before and it will happen again.

      • Should catalytic converters be declared illegal?

        Carbon levels are dropping dangerously low, warn climate scientists. But should catalytic converters be banned outright?

        "Preposterous," says conservative senator Bert Glanstron. "The government cannot foot the bill for removing all of those converters. The private sector must produce its own emerging technologies to boost carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere before any damage is done."

        Some conservatives claim that humans cannot significantly damage worldwid

        • Re:What happens .. (Score:5, Insightful)

          by TheKidWho ( 705796 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @03:01PM (#33771504)

          Catalytic converters take the toxic products of unburned fuel and convert them into CO2 + H2O + N2... If we want more CO2, the last thing we need to do is ban Catalytic converters...

          • Catalytic converters take the toxic products of unburned fuel and convert them into CO2 + H2O + N2... If we want more CO2, the last thing we need to do is ban Catalytic converters...

            Except that creating those catalytic converters has other, potentially greater, environmental impacts by way of mining the toxic metals and the industrial pollution in their manufacture. Most modern engines run pretty clean nowadays anyways so they are not as beneficial as they once were.

      • Assuming the trees are planet and the humanity stops to care we might pull out CO2 fast enough to reach a snowball earth [wikipedia.org] scenario, i.e. it gets too cold and more snow reflects more sunlight resulting in a negative feedback loop. And maybe this time we won't come out of it again.
        • Naw, this just postpones the inevitable. Since this is a man made solution, it will just tip the balance the other way and we'll have way too much O2 in the atmosphere. It will be way easier to start fires to keep warm. And then we'll end up burning down all the genetically engineered super CO2 eating trees in one fire storm, heating the atmosphere back up with the energy released in the fires, compounding it by the greenhouse effect from the burning trees, and we'll all drown when Antarctica melts.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      When we've turned all the carbon in to trees?

      The human body has a large amount of carbon. Long story short, the trees will start hungering for us!

      • That, and a primitive form of fusion would be all that is required to turn us into 9V batteries.

        • Yeah but if there's no sunlight, what do you feed the batteries... I mean humans.

          "Dead bodies."

          And what happens when you run-out of dead bodies in ~20 years time?

      • When we've turned all the carbon in to trees?

        The human body has a large amount of carbon. Long story short, the trees will start hungering for us!

        Billy! BILLY!! You get yur ass outta that nanotube tree right this minute! What's wrong with you boy, you know that dang thing done et your brother Bobby two years ago!

    • Burn the trees!
  • Do not want. I've seen Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Just imagine what pissing off the trees would do? It'll makes Avatar (err, I mean the original... Ferngully), seem like nothing.
  • by Dutchmaan ( 442553 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @02:34PM (#33771336) Homepage
    Yes by all means let's genetically alter tree's instead of changing our own behavior! There's just something more than a little wrong with, we can't change our own behavior so lets change the world around us so it can take our abuse more effectively!
    • by sakdoctor ( 1087155 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @02:49PM (#33771430) Homepage

      We? Our?

      Animal species use resources right up to the limit, even when detrimental to all, because they don't have the ability to do otherwise. On the group scale, humans are exactly that intelligent, so I'm not sure what you expect.

      • Adjusting our behavior is necessary due to the fact that other species do not threaten the existence of ALL OTHER SPECIES in their pursuit of survival. In all other cases, the survival of a species is contingent on the survival of other species. In the case of humans, because we can supplant the necessity to ensure the survival of other species in order to ensure our own, we often disregard this necessity, making our pursuits our "only" concern. This trait ensures that before too much longer there will only
        • by Rockoon ( 1252108 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @05:07PM (#33772264)

          In the case of humans, because we can supplant the necessity to ensure the survival of other species in order to ensure our own, we often disregard this necessity, making our pursuits our "only" concern. This trait ensures that before too much longer there will only be us [citation needed], and our "net loss" pursuits here on earth.

          Hell, I don't even think that you believe this shit. I think that you just like repeating it because you think the act of repeating it says something good about your character.

          When you put character above intelligence it is a shallow, transparent, character. The only people you can possibly impress with this shit are people that don't care if what you say is stupid or not.. the kind of people that just want to fit in with a crowd of morons.

    • by Councilor Hart ( 673770 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @03:19PM (#33771598)
      We should change our behaviour, but also scrub the atmosphere from the carbon we dumped in it over the last 150 years.
      • by haruchai ( 17472 )

        Which we partly by reforestation using Mother Nature's own trees instead of the Monsanto Ents.

    • by dh003i ( 203189 )

      You do know that most of the oxygen we breathe in comes from algae, right? In other words, trees simply aren't necessary *on that ground* at all.

      • You do know that trees not only eat carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, but also stop the wind and prevent soil erosion, right?
        In other words, without trees fertile land becomes steppe or even desert.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Moniker3 ( 1913952 )
      There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. All animals modify their environments for their own benefit. We're just better at it than everyone else. Which is why we win.
    • I agree 110%! Instead of changing our environment to suit our needs, we should stop using tools all together. No houses; caves were fine for great^nth grandma and pa, they're fine for us! No fire, no cooking, no agriculture, no domestication of animals, definitely no medicines or vaccines, no clothes, no nothing.

      Or, instead of being alarmist, we can try to modify our behavior (knowing full well that only some people will do so) while also using that big glob of gray goo in our heads to find ways to compensa

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @02:36PM (#33771346)

    What's the difference between planting trees that capture X% more carbon and planting X% more trees?

    • by KarrdeSW ( 996917 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @02:37PM (#33771352)
      More land used at the very least. The general trend worldwide is that humans keep clearing land, not replanting it.
      • You don't have to replant trees. Many simply keep growing when you cut them down, and in fact they grow faster because the root system is already in place.

        Combined with pyrolysis/charcoal making => agri/biochar for farming gives you an energy positive, economically positive mechanism for sequestering vast amounts of carbon.

        As if that really was the problem.


    • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @02:44PM (#33771390) Journal

      You can't patent unaltered trees.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by santax ( 1541065 )
      The price of the wood.
    • The first two posts are false dichotomies. Way to go, Slashdot. Nerds are supposed to be smart.

      It is possible to reduce carbon emissions, plant more trees, AND plant trees that capture more carbon.

    • planting trees is hard, there's money available to plant way more trees than we already are, however finding places to put them and people to do the work is apparently difficult.
  • We had these... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RadioheadKid ( 461411 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @02:44PM (#33771386)
    ..they were called rain forests, we decided we didn't need them and wanted to raise cattle instead...
  • Oh teh ironies! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Kostya ( 1146 )

    I would deeply, deeply love to see this pan out and become a viable approach with scientific evidence to back it up, if only so the rabid Climatology factions would have to eat crow and maybe apologize to Freeman Dyson (you might remember the outrage from the Climate Change community over his book reviews: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/jun/12/the-question-of-global-warming/ [nybooks.com] ). Not because I'm for super-trees, but just because I hate the fanaticism being brought to this whole issue.

    He was me

    • who basically pointed out that the economics of the the environmental solutions espoused by the Climate Change community just didn't make sense

      I'm sure he didn't really mean 'economics.' Viewing the larger historical picture, man has continually raped the environment, whether for timber or mining or farming or fishing or whathaveyou, for profit. As no one had to actually pay for the Ocean or the Earth or the natural resources that live on or are found under it —we just found it laying there and picked up what we wanted— it seemed at the time like like a free lunch we simply sold to someone else for profit. No one would expect actually

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Kostya ( 1146 )

        (No... didn't click your links... and I'm certain my response just doesn't make sense either... but only if 'economics,' wasn't a poorly chosen term).

        Yeah, actually he DID mean economics ... cuz he's an economist.

        Cripes, man, I gave you links. You could have even googled the name and gotten articles. I suppose you at least admitted you were so dead-set on saying your bit that you wouldn't want to be bothered actually getting informed about what you were responding to ...

        Which kind of proves my whole point: people aren't having a conversation or even discussing this stuff, they are just talking at each other. Like you just did :-)

    • Time and cost (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Kupfernigk ( 1190345 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @03:59PM (#33771836)
      Unfortunately many economists seem to fail to take into account the actual difficulties of developing and introducing new technologies. They like to use the example of wartime, but in fact that isn't a good one - as military technology gets more advanced, it too is taking ever longer to get into production.

      The point is that we have workable approaches in a short timescale - consumption reduction using insulation, legislation and smaller vehicles. We have workable approaches in the 5-10 year scale (wind and offshore wind), and in the 10-20 year scale (nuclear and replacement of coal with gas fired plants). All the bio and geo engineering approaches have huge potential downsides and would be unlikely to be proven safe for use, or workable in much under 20-30 years. And then we have fusion, which in 1960 was 10 years in the future and now in 2010 is reckoned to be 60 years in the future, if you believe the reports in that treehugger rag Scientific American.

      Lomborg now seems to be significantly backtracking on his earlier views, and Dyson is simply negligible - he is a retired physicist, from a generation when physicists were generally quite ignorant of statistics, not a climatologist or a mathematical modeller. It is hard to find any qualified people who would support him.

      The issue here is that you AGW deniers simply have a new tack - the argue that we need to do "some science, some research" because you don't like the results of all the science and research so far, and so simply extend into the future the time when we actually need to do anything. You are like people who are trying to prove that a coin isn't biased. Every time it's tossed it comes up heads, and you keep asking for one more toss in the hope it comes up tails - somehow imagining that the one tail will somehow negate the long sequence of heads. It is human nature - but it is not science, or a good basis for public policy.

      • by haruchai ( 17472 )

        I'd mod you up to 11, if I could

      • "from a generation when physicists were generally quite ignorant of statistics, not a climatologist or a mathematical modeller" Interesting given that main criticism levelled at key Climatologists is their lack of statistical competency; something I have verified for myself by pulling apart a couple of papers published by the national weather bureau in the country I live in.

        "Every time it's tossed it comes up heads, and you keep asking for one more toss in the hope it comes up tails" So there is clear and u

      • don't bother, you can't argue people un-stupid.
  • by Kupfernigk ( 1190345 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @02:52PM (#33771450)
    This is pure speculation about technologies that may or may not be feasible. What is clear is that suitable plants won't be developed in a short timeframe, and then will take years to grow to the point at which they have any real effect. By which time warming will have reduced yields in much of the world to the point at which we won't be using land to sequester carbon but to grow food.

    This is a plug by the biologists for R&D dollars - why should the physicists (solar power and nuclear) and the engineers (wind and hydro) get all the attention?

    Altering our behaviour isn't really that hard or expensive. Installing extensive insulation, an efficient boiler and solar PV, and converting a small patch of wasteland into a vegetable patch, has reduced our carbon usage by around 30% in little more than a year. Many people could achieve much more; a lot of people in the US and the UK still don't have double glazing, which reduces heating and aircon loads alike, and there are still far too many single-occupancy SUVs and light trucks on our roads. What's more, these things actually save money - if AGW turned out to be a myth tomorrow, the financial crisis would still be here and I would still be better off because of the actions I've taken.

    Messing with plants should be a long way down the list, after simple things that can be done with established technology have been fully utilised, and not before.

    • by Kostya ( 1146 )

      I've heard of this solution before via people like Dyson (his infamous book review; see my earlier comment). I'm not sure this is proposed as a "just keep abusing the world and make super trees"--although I'm entirely sure there are some who would do just that. It's been more championed as an elegant hack to the big issue: yes, we can alter our behavior, but if the models are right we are screwed, screwed, screwed because CO2 is going to cook us all.

      Again, I'm sure there's some loon who thinks we should b

      • Indeed, technological measures could theoretically come along and make things OK, but we definitely can alter our behavior patterns. Realistically we'll end up with a solution that's a combination of the two, but assuming that we can fix things technologically is an excellent way to ensure that bad things happen.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by goodmanj ( 234846 )

      This is a plug by the biologists for R&D dollars - why should the physicists (solar power and nuclear) and the engineers (wind and hydro) get all the attention?

      Are you shitting me? If a biologist wants some R&D dollars, she takes an interest in cancer or alzheimer's research and writes grant proposals to the National Institutes of Health. The NIH's research budget ($32 billion) is five times the *total* budgets of either NSF or NOAA -- and of course, environmental science research makes up only a

  • Profit! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by plopez ( 54068 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @02:58PM (#33771488) Journal

    1) Mega-corporations design genetically altered trees to sequester carbon and patent them.
    2) Lobby the government for huge tax breaks and subsidies. Then work as contractors to plant the trees. Or plant them to offset environmental damage claims from mineral exploration (The Gulf of Mexico for example).

    3) Profit!

    Seriously, these solutions are ridiculous. I went to a lecture by a guy from IIRC Princeton. He was researching carbon sequestration using money from.... oil companies. What a crock. It was riddled with wishful thinking, e.g. "we find an unfractured geologic formation...". It was also so complex it look like a ISO standard butt-load of pork for private contractors.

    And then at the end "after the sequestration, long term monitoring can be handed off to the public sector." In other words, privatize profit while socializing risk. And we all see how well privatizing profit while socializing risk worked when we bailed out the financial system.

  • by goodmanj ( 234846 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @03:18PM (#33771592)

    A simple comparison of the size of the biological carbon reservoir on land (2000 gigatons C) and the rate at which it exchanges carbon with the atmosphere (120 gigatons/year) suggests that growing trees is a terrible way to store carbon in the long term: extra stored carbon will return to the atmosphere in a couple of decades.

    This is confirmed by a variety of real-world experiments in forest artificially enriched with CO2 [sbc.edu] and in naturally growing forests [agu.org].

    You may call a dead tree "sequestered carbon", but there's a whole ecosystem full of organisms that call it "lunch". If you want to get rid of carbon, you need to either store it in a place where organisms can't get to it (for example, in the deep seafloor) or in a form that's not tasty (for example, as CO2 or carbonate rock.).

    • You don't need to prevent it from getting back into the atmosphere permanently, you just have to fix things so that it's getting sequestered as fast or faster than it's being produced. So if a tree breaks down over the years, that doesn't cause much trouble, it's counting it as permanently sequestered and acting on it that's the problem.
    • And form charcoal, which is mostly inedible.

      Google "Terra preta".

      • That'd work, but you've gone from a mostly hands-off, passive technology to a massive industrial process involving harvesting and processing ten billion tons of trees a year.

        And if you're going to harvest 'em, you might as well burn them completely as biomass. After all, mining coal, burning it for energy creating CO2, reclaiming the CO2 in trees, converting the trees *back* into coal and dumping the coal back in the ground is crazy: might as well just skip the coal step.

  • What I've always wished for is that cars and boats and other fossil fuel burning vehicles that would concentrate their exhaust into solid pellets. What I have in my mind is a picture of bulldozers crapping charcoal briquettes all over a work site.
    • Not feasible, that would require a lot of pressure which would have to come from somewhere. The exhaust system of a car is designed to keep pressure down as much as possible for efficiency reasons.
  • Why bother with GM, (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PinkyGigglebrain ( 730753 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @03:26PM (#33771640)
    I know of a plant that can generate 4 times the cellulose per acre than trees.

    It takes less than a year to mature rather than 10-20 years with trees.

    It needs no fertilizer or insecticide, and is unaffected by increased UV.

    It grows almost anywhere the climate is right, and that covers a big area.

    Grow it, cut it down, give the nutrients a few weeks to leech back into the soil then haul away the cellulose and fill old mines with it, use it for paper, plastic feedstock, etc..

    No GM needed.

    The plant?


    (cue old lame jokes about getting high, comments in general opposition, etc.)

    • Chemical pleasure interferes with worshipping Jesus. Any pleasure religion cannot control is bad and must be punished, hence the War on Some Drugs, and the war on commercial hemp cultivation.

  • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) * on Saturday October 02, 2010 @03:48PM (#33771752)
    Those carbon-heavy logs will burn great in my fireplace.
  • by b4upoo ( 166390 ) on Saturday October 02, 2010 @03:50PM (#33771764)

    While America seeks to shrink the waist lines of its population apparently we intend to raise some really huge trees. Or as an alternative maybe we could just encourage kudzo vines to grow. We can blanket America with Kudzo with almost no effort at all.

    • Hey, that's a great idea! We Americans are the innovators again! We are sequestering carbon in the human population at even greater rates! Obesity will save the world!
  • With the effort put into GM'ing trees, with all the unknown risks and huge costs of any significant deployment, how about just planting more trees that naturally evolved to survive in these ecosystems? Making more things out of wood, and less out of concrete and plastic, sinking atmospheric carbon instead of generating more mines.

    That might not sound as sexy, but it does offer profits to the old and powerful owners of large tracts of forests, and countries with historically forested lands that don't have lo

  • by OliverSparrow ( 1719338 ) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @05:09AM (#33775338)

    The Amazon soil, normally red, is scattered with dark patches. These are charcoal residues from human occupation, some of them thousands of years old. Elemental particulate carbon is a good cation exchange medium - it sequesters nutrients - and it makes these patches extremely fertile when compared to untouched soil.

    A good plan might be to is to char biomass and simply plough it into soil, if carbon sequestration is what you are about. This can eb combined with conventional agriculture. (NB by the way, that a field covered in soya or sugar cane exchanges as much carbon as a tropical rain forest: it's just and energy-in energy-out issue. Standing tropical forest holds about twice as much carbon as uncharred sugar cane, but less if the residue bagasse were to be charred and storred.) The issue with forests is biodiversity, not net photosynthesis.

    Consider another practical CO2 sequestration project. Provide the simple, locally-sourced technology and then pay India small holders to set up cheap windmills, not for power but to grind chunks of the immense Deccan Flats to a powder. Why? Because these hundreds of cubic kilometres of rock are made of a basic basalt, one that rapidly absorbs CO2 when it is ground up and so exposed to air. What you get from the residue are new rice paddies.

    It is thought that the reason that the climate got cold after the 15C-hotter-than-now Eocene is that the newly-forming Himalayas began to erode, fixing CO2 as they did so. The resulting carbonates are under Bangaldesh and in the Bay of Bengal.

    Another good scheme is to use biomass-based carbon as a spine on which to hang solar (etc) derived hydrogen. The result is called diesel or gasoline. Doing this uses 1950s technology, and is a lot cheaper than many alternatives. You can of course burn it in cars, using established technology and known, safe handling systems. You have tens of millions of trained technicians already on stream. Hydrogen is, by contrast, a nightmare fuel: low energy density, hard to store and with a tendency to embrittle anything in which it is stored, essentially explosive in any contact with the atmosphere. And as to electricity! Has anyone seen a Lithium battery on fire? Think disruptive crash - fizz, crackle, boof.

"Mach was the greatest intellectual fraud in the last ten years." "What about X?" "I said `intellectual'." ;login, 9/1990