Climate Action

How engineering animals and plants could help fight climate change

scientist carrying out genetic engineering

Genetic engineering: A tool to fight climate change? Image: Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplas

Kevin Doxzen
Hoffmann Fellow, Precision Medicine and Emerging Biotechnologies, World Economic Forum LLC
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  • The process of resurrecting traits from extinct animals is commonly referred to as “de-extinction," and scientists hope to bring back the woolly mammoth to preserve the tundra.
  • Engineering other animals and plants can help revive the ocean, protect food systems, and remove carbon from the atmosphere.
  • There is potential for genetic engineering to bolster the response to climate change, but there are also risks and unknowns.

The magnitude and frequency of environmental disasters are creating economic instability and spurring human migration. This stark reality forms the backdrop of the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which has been dubbed the “world’s last best chance to get runaway climate change under control.”

Conference organizers created a short list of goals to help frame the problem and guide solutions. First, mitigation secures global net zero emissions and aims to limit global warming to 1.5ºC. Second, adaptation refers to changing things urgently to protect communities and natural habitats.

Reaching these goals means investing in proven solutions like renewable energies, resilient infrastructure, and land regeneration. But alongside what we know works, researchers and policymakers want to consider the unknown. Efforts to genetically engineer plants and animals for both climate change mitigation and adaptation are gaining momentum, driven by advancements in biotechnology.

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As the international community looks for technological, social, and political levers to pull in pursuit of COP26 goals, understanding the scope and trajectory of the use of genetic engineering in plants and animals should be a key consideration.

There are several initiatives underway, from the ambitious to the pragmatic, that are testing genetic engineering’s potential role in our response to climate change.

Bring back the woolly mammoth to reshape the tundra?

After almost a decade of describing how the experiments would work, researchers will soon put a much-anticipated project into motion.

A company named Colossal received $15 million in private funding to begin engineering the genome of Asian elephants. These targeted genetic changes would, in theory, bestow elephants with specific woolly mammoth traits. This process of resurrecting traits is commonly referred to as “de-extinction.” Scientists do not intend to bring back an exact woolly mammoth replica, but instead create elephants with enough dense hair and thick fat that would allow them to thrive in Siberia.

As the international community looks for technological, social, and political levers to pull in pursuit of COP26 goals, understanding the scope and trajectory of the use of genetic engineering in plants and animals should be a key consideration.

Kevin Doxzen, Hoffmann Fellow, Precision Medicine and Emerging Biotechnologies, World Economic Forum

Releasing cold-loving mammals into a warming planet may sound counter-intuitive, but studies suggest that their impact on the tundra could help mitigate climate change. The key is keeping the permafrost frozen, ground that contains large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In theory, cold-adapted elephants would knock down sunlight-absorbing trees, exposing ground that better reflects light and prevents melting.

Colossal’s plan to repopulate the tundra is a moonshot. But even if they fall short of their ultimate goal, investors are excited about the advancements in genetic engineering that Colossal may achieve along the way.

The genetic difference between an Asian elephant and a woolly mammoth is ~1.4 million DNA letters. Swapping even a small fraction of these letters would be a monumental engineering feat that would open the door to more efficiently engineering other organisms for climate change mitigation or adaptation.

Here are four other areas that could see benefits.

1. Coral

Climate change is threatening the immense biodiversity of ocean life. Estimates suggest that a 1.5ºC increase in global warming would lead to a 70 – 90% decline in coral reefs, a vital haven for marine species. Researchers are using genetic engineering for climate change adaptation by uncovering what genes help coral populations survive in warming waters, insight which would direct conservationists towards breeding naturally heat-tolerant corals or help researchers engineer threatened species.

2. Cattle

Adapting global food systems to a changing climate is necessary to feed a growing world population. Small shareholder farmers, many of whom rely on livestock for essential nutrients and economic stability, are particularly vulnerable.

As climates warm, droughts become more severe and tropical diseases spread into new regions. By analysing the DNA of cattle raised in tropical regions, researchers have identified genes that provide resistance to parasitic infections and increased body weight. Using genetic engineering to transfer these genes into cattle raised in temperate or colder regions would help these animals adapt and survive in warmer climates.

3. Crops

Safeguarding staple crops like rice, which is the main source of calories for 3 billion people, from drought and flooding will be essential to alleviating global food insecurity. Researchers are using genetic tools to uncover genes that help rice withstand harsh conditions. Genetic engineering could help move these genes into different rice varieties to make more resilient crops.

4. Carbon

Limiting the emission of greenhouse gasses may not be enough to reach COP26 goals. Models suggest that we may need to remove carbon from the atmosphere in a climate mitigation process called carbon sequestration or carbon capture. By improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, researchers hope to engineer plants that can absorb more atmospheric carbon. Genetic engineering could also be used to grow longer, studier roots to store carbon deeper underground.

Prioritizing climate solutions

While many applications of genetic engineering remain in development, this technology offers viable opportunities to bolster our urgent response to climate change.

To reach COP26 goals, the products of this technology will need to be disseminated on a global scale. Deployment of genetically-engineered organisms can lead to disagreements around questions of ownership, access and oversight.

This area of research must be approached with humility, sensitivity, and a recognition of past experiences. Only through international coordination and shared understanding behind the motivations and implications of this technology can we understand the effect of these applications on communities and make progress towards climate justice.

As researchers explore the scientific potential of this technology, policymakers and other stakeholders must evaluate where genetic engineering sits amongst the growing list of available climate change solutions, taking into account how economic, environmental, and social risks will be mitigated and monitored.

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