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Gene Editing for the Climate: Biological Solutions for Curbing Greenhouse Emissions

Gene Editing for the Climate: Biological Solutions for Curbing Greenhouse Emissions
September 14, 2020

Recent advances in gene editing offer promising opportunities to mitigate emissions from agriculture and other sectors, and to capture carbon from the atmosphere. Governments should accelerate the development and deployment of these solutions.

Excess emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from human activities have accumulated in the atmosphere at levels sufficient to disrupt global patterns of heat exchange, driving changes in climate and weather with dramatic, detrimental consequences. Meanwhile, over the past half-century, advances in biology have enabled humans to adapt the genetic blueprints of life in new ways, and to an unprecedented degree. The former presents a serious threat to the global economy, human health, and the environment. The latter offers solutions that can play an important role in limiting future GHG emissions and removing past emissions from the atmosphere.

This report explores solutions made possible by the most modern techniques of biotechnology: gene editing. An esoteric interest of just a handful of molecular biologists only a decade ago, gene editing is now the second-most published topic in biology (after SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19). Gene editing can be used to improve fundamental biological processes, like photosynthesis, to deliver positive impacts across wide range of human activities, including those that impact the climate.

Noted physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in 2008, “After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed…. if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands.” While Dyson’s long-term prediction will not quickly come to pass, over the next 50 years, gene editing will make significant contributions to address the climate challenge, especially if public policymakers recognize and act on the opportunity quickly. Public investments in climate and clean energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) to date have focused heavily on chemical and physical solutions. It’s time for biology to play a much bigger role.

This report describes how ancient biological processes have been reforged by researchers into new tools that can reshape the characteristics of plants, animals, and microbes to help reduce GHG emissions and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It focuses primarily on opportunities for agricultural innovation, which is the logical sector for initial applications because, while it is not the largest source of GHGs, it is more directly dependent on biology than other sectors. The report also addresses biofuels, before turning to applications of gene editing that hold promise for removing carbon from the atmosphere.

It concludes with a set of policy recommendations aimed at accelerating the development and deployment of gene-edited climate solutions, making four key recommendations to the United States government and its international partners:

  1. Eliminate unscientific regulatory burdens and barriers that hinder the development of safe gene-edited products.
  2. Increase investment in research and development (R&D) priorities such as advancing CRISPR tools, enhancing photosynthesis, and improving methods to measure soil carbon.
  3. Improve coordination of existing R&D efforts within the United States and around
    the world.
  4. Expand incentives that will spur the rapid adoption of novel gene-edited technologies.
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