Better democracy through technology
When Mike Koval, the police chief of Madison, Wisconsin, abruptly resigned on a Sunday in September 2019, the community’s relationship with its men and women in blue was already strained. Use-of-force issues hung over the department after the killing of a Black teenager in 2015. Then, months before Koval left, another Black teenager, in the middle of a mental health crisis, was beaten on the head by an officer while being restrained by three others.
The process of selecting a new police chief followed a standard formula. A five-person team of mayor-appointed, city-council-approved commissioners would make the ultimate decision, allowing for public comment beforehand. But this time, the commissioners wanted that public input to involve more of the local community than just the folks who regularly appeared at town-hall-style meetings.
To gather more meaningful community feedback based on “lived experiences,” the commission took a new approach in which small groups of citizens—many from Madison’s most underheard neighborhoods—were brought together in a nonthreatening environment. Facilitators guided people who differed in age, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status through intimate discussions on topics including what their own relationships with the police were like; whether they trusted or feared them; how they’d seen officers interact with kids and adults; and what type of training they thought police should receive to deal with stressful situations.
“The way we’re speaking with others is fundamentally broken. In every measurable way, things are getting more fractured and polarized.”
These conversations were recorded as part of an initiative called the Local Voices Network (LVN), which worked closely with the nonprofit Cortico and MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines (LSM), headed by Professor Deb Roy. What made the process unique—and a potential model for other municipalities—was what happened next.
With help from machine-learning technology that Roy and an interdisciplinary team had developed over the past five years, MIT researchers sifted through hundreds of hours of audio to define topics and summarize larger conversations into snippets of text. By using this technology to augment human listening, the researchers were able to highlight parts of the conversations and identify the themes of greatest concern. The insights of 48 people in 31 different conversations were highlighted. The topics that emerged as common concerns became the basis for interview questions asked of the candidates to succeed Koval. Of the six final questions put before the four finalists, three came directly from the community conversations.
The facilitated work in Madison was a natural extension of Roy’s research in social media analytics. The scope of this work was further advanced when, in January 2021, MIT announced that the Laboratory for Social Machines would be expanded into an Institute-wide Center for Constructive Communication (CCC) based within the MIT Media Lab. The center will continue to work closely with Cortico, which Roy currently chairs. The two entities are now working hand in hand on building, as Roy says, “power tools” for democracy.
In Madison, thanks to tools like those, “we were able to actually uplift the specific concerns of a variety of members of the community,” says Colleen Butler, former director of capacity building at Cortico.
According to Roy, that’s how civic dialogue is supposed to work: various voices learning from each other to bridge divides and inform public policymaking. Instead, what he currently sees is a fragmented, reactive, angry world where vitriol and provocation score more points than conversation and understanding.
“The way we’re speaking with others is fundamentally broken,” he says. “In every measurable way, things are getting more fractured and polarized.”
For more than two decades, Roy has been deeply immersed in studying the complexity of human communication. Today, by combining that study with work on social-impact technology, he hopes to foster more constructive personal connections and enhance civic discourse. His aim is to find much-needed civility and common ground both in person and in social networks.
Most parents-to-be obsess over necessities like the crib, the bottles, and the pacifiers. Deb Roy had another item on his list: audio equipment.
In 2005, just before his son was born, Roy outfitted his home with 11 video cameras and 14 microphones. Over three years, he collected data—90,000 hours of video, 140,000 hours of audio—on how familial interactions affected his son’s speech development. Dubbed the Human Speechome Project, it built on Roy’s PhD dissertation, which focused on developing machine-learning models of human language. (He gave a TED talk about the experience in 2011.)
Roy’s key insight from the project was the notion of recurrent shared contexts. Parents don’t generally talk to their infants about objects or people not in the room. To foster language learning, it’s more helpful to use words in reference to something the infants and caregivers can perceive or participate in together. Roy wondered where else that sort of phenomenon might be found. Michael Fleischman, a PhD student in his research group, had an idea: the way people talk about TV. It was only a couple years after Twitter was founded, in 2006, that Roy and Fleischman discovered there were social media users who talk about television shows and commercials airing in real time, without even knowing each other.
“That’s how we ended up looking at tweets and other social media that were about what was on television,” says Roy. “You have this shared context. People tuned in to a live broadcast, and then talked to one another or just broadcasted, into the ether, reactions.”
He and Fleischman thought this was the basis for a good business idea. Advertisers have large research budgets for the purpose of figuring out how to help them connect with would-be consumers. In 2008, Roy took an extended leave from MIT, and the pair founded Bluefin Labs, a social analytics startup, to help companies analyze what everyday people were saying about television programs and advertising. Using algorithms, the startup could pick out millions of online comments made about a show or commercial in the hours immediately after it aired. Seeing that sort of information could then help networks and companies understand what was resonating with audiences, especially in the ever-growing online sphere.
“Companies that figure this out will thrive in the next 10 to 15 years. Companies that don’t will fail,” said a Nielsen executive quoted in a profile of the company published in MIT Technology Review in 2011.
Bluefin Labs was acquired by Twitter in 2013 for $100 million. For Roy, it served as a jumping-off point to his current work. He took a four-year role as Twitter’s chief media scientist, but he also went back to MIT.
“I knew that my long-term goal was to return to research,” he says. “My interest was to create a new kind of lab which could straddle the incredibly rich environment of doing explanatory and fundamental research with the skill set and all the things we did at Bluefin and Twitter.”
Forget analyzing the semantic patterns of the online world to figure out whether people liked a product being hawked during a commercial break: Roy wanted to take what he had learned at Bluefin, where he’d translated research into practical products and services, and apply those findings for noncommercial societal benefit. That’s when, in 2014, he set up the LSM at the Media Lab, with Twitter as a founding partner and main funder. He tapped Russell Stevens, a friend and previous advisor at Bluefin with a background in media and marketing, to help establish the lab.
What the researchers discovered this time when they examined tweets and other social media posts was something wholly different from what they’d seen in the world of entertainment TV: a crumbling social context instead of a cohesive one. After the Boston Marathon bombing, rumors spread like wildfire. During the 2016 presidential election, unverified reports were shared widely. Big news events came and went, playing out for all to see, but people reacted differently depending on what they heard and what they believed.
Through research at the lab, Roy, Stevens, and the LSM team tried to make sense of it—even going so far as to analyze millions of tweets to discern how false news spread through Twitter. (The resulting paper, which Roy coauthored, appeared on the cover of Sciencein 2018.) But to actually bridge those social divides, collaborators at the lab realized, they had to marry real-life conversations with the computational social science started at Bluefin and further developed at the LSM.
“If we really wanted to understand why we may be fragmenting into isolated tribes, we actually had to go talk to people,” Stevens says. “That’s the only solution.”
Finding common ground
Bringing conversations in the online world back to earth, so to speak, was Roy’s purpose in creating the Center for Constructive Communication. The announcement that introduced the new center characterized it as an “evolution” of the LSM. Unlike the LSM, though, it has a mandate to reach beyond academia—to bring the tools of data-driven analytics to bear on conversations about society, culture, and politics, and then to see where connections between people can be made.
“A democracy can’t function if the public is so divided and unable to listen to each other,” says Ceasar McDowell, the center’s associate director. “What we find out is that people aren’t as far apart as you think, but they don’t have the space where they feel that they will be heard and listened to in order to find that connection.”
That’s where Cortico comes in. Founded in 2016, with Roy and Stevens as two of the three cofounders, the nonprofit aimed primarily to facilitate on-the-ground conversations—first with the social tools that the LSM was developing, and now with interpersonal technologies being created by CCC and Cortico. CCC, which leads research in analytics and design research, partners with Cortico to develop prototype translations of research that can be tested with field partners—often local, grassroots organizations. Cortico then integrates findings from successful pilot programs into the LVN platform, which it independently develops and operates.
Can the marriage of real-life conversations with advanced digital technology put us on the road to becoming better citizens? Professor Deb Roy thinks so.
That platform, Cortico’s core initiative, is where the audio from these types of community conversations gets stored. Analytics tools—similar to what Bluefin Labs pioneered a decade ago—sift through the talk to find the common ground, and then to amplify those representative perspectives. Audio transcripts are made, and as the computer goes through the text, it picks out key points from conversations. Afterward, anyone can go back and listen to a particular segment to get the full context. CCC calls it “sense-making.”
To Jacquelyn Boggess, one of the commissioners involved in picking Madison’s police chief, the insights gained this way proved invaluable. Typically, the people who show up at town halls are telling commissioners which person to pick. The conversations with Madison’s citizens, she says, instead gave her a chance to hear how her decision might affect them.
“They’re not telling me who to choose. They’re telling me who they are and what they need,” Boggess says. “People told me stories of their lives and what goes on in their lives, as opposed to telling me who they think I should choose for police chief, and that was much more helpful.”
In late 2020, the LSM and Cortico used the LVN process to connect with citizens in Atlanta during the covid pandemic. As part of a collaboration with the Atlanta-based Task Force for Global Health, Cortico set up virtual group conversations of about six to eight people. They spoke about their fears of the new disease, the questions they had about staying safe, and their concerns about how covid testing was conducted. Cortico and LSM researchers (CCC was still a few weeks away from being announced) shared insights from those conversations with Black ministers, who they hoped could answer those questions for their congregations. In early 2021, LVN came in handy again as vaccines were being rolled out. “As the vaccine gained steam, we were able to tap into what folks were saying on the ground,” says Stevens. The platform gave residents a chance to express any concerns they had about receiving a vaccination; again, the team then spun up the results into messaging that could be distributed by trusted voices in various city neighborhoods.
Kick-starting a revolution
In the future, Roy hopes to expand the capabilities of CCC, Cortico, and LVN. Some of that will be accomplished through hardware designed to use during these group conversations: a portable recording device called a “digital hearth,” which is supposed to be a little more inviting than just a smartphone or microphone sitting in the center of a table. At the same time, Cortico is designing programs to train community organizers and volunteers on how to organize and facilitate local conversations.
“In general, online spaces, in order to meet certain design objectives and commercial objectives, tend to be disconnected from the in-person world,” Roy says. “We’re interested in weaving these back together.”
If a series of personal conversations could help Madison residents grapple with an issue as contentious as policing, and establish enough common ground to inform the questions asked in the official interviews, it seems to indicate that the process could work.
“I think it allows for greater transparency and community involvement—and, frankly, a more thoughtful process—than the more typical town hall type of meetings can offer,” says Butler.
Kick-starting a revolution in civic discourse is currently at the forefront of Roy’s mind. Right now, CCC is working on a new dashboard feature that would connect to information collected and organized in the LVN platform. A journalist set to moderate a public debate, for example, would be able to craft questions that address what’s on the minds of city residents as opposed to just picking a tweet or online comment at random. In fact, that’s exactly what is starting to happen with a new initiative in Boston.
Roy is careful to hedge his bets on how successful these new approaches can be. “The spaces for what we would call constructive conversation and constructive dialogue are shrinking,” he says. “I guess I know enough to realize it’d be naïve to think we’re going to fix that.”
Still, the tools he’s creating are unquestionably a start.
Inside the quest to engineer climate-saving “super trees”
Fifty-three million years ago, the Earth was much warmer than it is today. Even the Arctic Ocean was a balmy 50 °F—an almost-tropical environment that looked something like Florida, complete with swaying palm trees and roving crocodiles.
Then the world seemed to pivot. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere plummeted, and things began to cool toward today’s “icehouse” conditions, meaning that glaciers can persist well beyond the poles.
What caused the change was, for decades, unclear. Eventually, scientists drilling into Arctic mud discovered a potential clue: a layer of fossilized freshwater ferns up to 20 meters thick. The site suggested that the Arctic Ocean may have been covered for a time in vast mats of small-leaved aquatic Azolla ferns. Azollas are among the fastest-growing plants on the planet, and the scientists theorized that if such ferns coated the ocean, they could have consumed huge quantities of carbon, helping scrub the atmosphere of greenhouse gasses and thereby cooling the planet.
Patrick Mellor, paleobiologist and chief technology officer of the biotech startup Living Carbon, sees a lesson in the story about these diminutive ferns: photosynthesis can save the world. Certain fluke conditions seem to have helped the Azollas along, though. The arrangement of continental plates at the time meant the Arctic Ocean was mostly enclosed, like a massive lake, which allowed a thin layer of fresh river water to collect atop it, creating the kind of conditions the ferns needed. And crucially, when each generation of ferns died, they settled into saltier water that helped inhibit decay, keeping microbes from releasing the ferns’ stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
Mellor says we can’t wait millions of years for the right conditions to return. If we want plants to save the climate again, we have to prod them along. “How do we engineer an anthropogenic Azolla event?” he says. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
At Living Carbon, Mellor is trying to design trees that grow faster and grab more carbon than their natural peers, as well as trees that resist rot, keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere. In February, less than four years after he co-founded it, the company made headlines by planting its first “photosynthesis-enhanced” poplar trees in a strip of bottomland forests in Georgia.
This is a breakthrough, clearly: it’s the first forest in the United States that contains genetically engineered trees. But there’s still much we don’t know. How will these trees affect the rest of the forest? How far will their genes spread? And how good are they, really, at pulling more carbon from the atmosphere?
Living Carbon has already sold carbon credits for its new forest to individual consumers interested in paying to offset some of their own greenhouse gas emissions. They’re working with larger companies, to which they plan to deliver credits in the coming years. But academics who study forest health and tree photosynthesis question whether the trees will be able to absorb as much carbon as advertised.
Even Steve Strauss, a prominent tree geneticist at Oregon State University who briefly served on Living Carbon’s scientific advisory board and is conducting field trials for the company, told me in the days before the first planting that the trees might not grow as well as natural poplars. “I’m kind of a little conflicted,” he said, “that they’re going ahead with this—all the public relations and the financing—on something that we don’t know if it works.”
Roots of an idea
In photosynthesis, plants pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and use the energy from sunlight to turn it into sugars. They burn some sugars for energy and use some to build more plant matter—a store of carbon.
A research group based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign supercharged this process, publishing their results in early 2019. They solved a problem presented by RuBisCO, an enzyme many plants use to grab atmospheric carbon. Sometimes the enzyme accidentally bonds with oxygen, a mistake that yields something akin to a toxin. As the plant processes this material, it must burn some of its sugars, thereby releasing carbon back to the sky. A quarter or more of the carbon absorbed by plants can be wasted through this process, known as photorespiration.
The researchers inserted genes into tobacco plants that helped them turn the toxin-like material into more sugar. These genetically tweaked plants grew 25% larger than controls.
The breakthrough offered good news for the world’s natural landscapes: if this genetic pathway yields more productive crops, we’ll need less farmland, sparing forests and grasslands that otherwise would have to be cleared. As for the plants’ ability to remove atmospheric carbon over the long term, the new trick doesn’t help much. Each year, much of the carbon in a crop plant’s biomass gets returned to the atmosphere after it’s consumed, whether by microbes or fungi or human beings.
Still, the result caught the attention of Maddie Hall, a veteran of several Silicon Valley startups who was interested in launching her own carbon-capture venture. Hall reached out to Donald Ort, the biologist who’d led the project, and learned that the same tweaks might work in trees—which stay in the ground long enough to serve as a potential climate solution.
Late in 2019, Hall settled on the name for her startup: Living Carbon. Not long afterward, she met Mellor at a climate conference. Mellor was then serving as a fellow with the Foresight Institute, a think tank focused on ambitious future technologies, and had become interested in plants like Pycnandra acuminata. This tree, native to the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, pulls huge quantities of nickel out of the soil. That’s likely a defense against insects, but as nickel has natural antifungal properties, the resulting wood is less prone to decay. Mellor figured if he could transfer the correct gene into more species, he could engineer his Azolla event.
When Mellor and Hall met, they realized their projects were complementary: put the genes together and you’d get a truly super tree, faster-growing and capable of more permanent carbon storage. Hall tapped various contacts in Silicon Valley to collect $15 million in seed money, and a company was born.
In some ways, Living Carbon’s goal was simple, at least when it came to photosynthesis: take known genetic pathways and place them in new species, a process that’s been conducted with plants for nearly 40 years. “There’s a lot of mystification of this stuff, but really it’s just a set of laboratory techniques,” Mellor says.
Since neither Mellor nor Hall had substantial experience with genetic transformation, they enlisted outside scientists to do some of the early work. The company focused on replicating Ort’s enhanced-photosynthesis pathway in trees, targeting two species: poplars, which are popular with researchers because of their well-studied genome, and loblolly pines, a common timber species. By 2020, the tweaked trees had been planted in a grow room, a converted recording studio in San Francisco. The enhanced poplars quickly showed results even more promising than Ort’s tobacco plants. In early 2022, Living Carbon’s team posted a paper on the preprint server bioRxiv claiming that the best-performing tree showed 53% more above-ground biomass than controls after five months. (A peer-reviewed version of the paper appeared in the journal Forests in April.)
Through the loophole
Plant genetics research can be a long scientific slog. What works in a greenhouse, where conditions can be carefully controlled, may not work as well in outdoor settings, where the amounts of light and nutrients a plant receives vary. The standard next step after a successful greenhouse result is a field trial, which allows scientists to observe how genetically engineered (GE) plants might fare outside without actually setting them fully loose.
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations for GE field trials aim to minimize “gene drift,” in which the novel genes might spread into the wild. Permits require that biotech trees be planted far from species with which they could potentially reproduce, and in some cases the rules dictate that any flowers be removed. Researchers must check the field site after the study to ensure no trace of the GE plants remain.
Before planting trees in Georgia, Living Carbon launched its own field trials. The company hired Oregon State’s Strauss, who had given Living Carbon the poplar clone it had used in its gene transfer experiments. In the summer of 2021, Strauss planted the redesigned trees in a section of the university’s property in Oregon.
Strauss has been conducting such field trials for decades, often for commercial companies trying to create better timber technologies. It’s a process that requires patience, he says: most companies want to wait until a “half rotation,” or midway to harvest age, before determining whether a field trial’s results are promising enough to move forward with a commercial planting. Living Carbon’s trees may never be harvested, which makes setting a cutoff date difficult. But when we spoke in February, less than two years into the field trial and just before Living Carbon’s initial planting, Strauss said it was too early to determine whether the company’s trees would perform as they had in the greenhouse. “There could be a negative,” he said. “We don’t know.”
Strauss has been critical of the US regulatory requirements for field trials, which he sees as costly, a barrier that scares off many academics. The framework behind its rules emerged in the 1980s when, rather than wait on the slow grind of the legislative process, the Reagan administration adapted existing laws to fit new genetic technologies. For the USDA, the chosen tool was its broad authority over “plant pests,” a term meant to describe anything that might injure a plant—whether an overly hungry animal, a parasitic bacterium, or a weed that might outcompete a crop.
At the time, gene transfer in plants was almost entirely accomplished with the help of Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This microbe attacks plants by inserting its own genes, much like a virus. But scientists found they could convince the bacterium to deliver whatever snippets of code they desired. Since Agrobacterium itself is considered a plant pest, the USDA decided it had the authority to regulate the interstate movement and environmental release of any plant that had had its genes transformed by the microbe. This meant nearly comprehensive regulation of GE plants.
In 1987, just one year after the USDA established its policy, a team of Cornell researchers announced the successful use of what’s become known as a “gene gun”—or, less colorfully, “biolistics”—in which bits of DNA are literally blasted into a plant cell, carried by high-velocity particles. No plant pest was involved. This created a loophole in the system, a way to produce GE plants that the current laws did not cover.
Since then, more than 100 GE plants, mostly modified crop plants, have thus escaped the USDA’s regulatory scrutiny.
Agrobacterium remains a common method of gene transfer, and it’s how Living Carbon produced the trees discussed in its paper. But Mellor knew going to market with trees considered potential plant pests “would be a long and depressing path,” he says, one with tests and studies and pauses to collect public comment. “It would take years, and we just wouldn’t survive.”
Once Living Carbon saw that its trees had promise, it dove through the loophole, creating new versions of its enhanced trees via biolistics. In formal letters to the USDA the company explained what it was doing; the agency replied that, because the resulting trees had not been exposed to and did not contain genes from a plant pest, they were not subject to regulations.
Other federal agencies also have authority over biotechnology. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates biotech plants that produce their own pesticides, and the Food and Drug Administration examines anything humans might consume. Living Carbon’s trees do not fit into either of these categories, so they could be planted without any further formal studies.
A year after Living Carbon announced its greenhouse results—before the data from the field trial had any meaning, according to Strauss—the company sent a team to Georgia to plant the first batch of seedlings outside strictly controlled fields. Mellor indicated that this would double as one more study site, where the trees would be measured to estimate the rate of biomass accumulation. The company could make an effort to start soaking up carbon even as it was verifying the efficacy of its trees.
Out in the wild
Experiments with genetically modified trees have historically evoked a strong response from anti-GE activists. In 2001, around 800 specimens growing in Strauss’s test plots at Oregon State University were chopped down or otherwise mutilated.
In 2015, in response to the news that the biotech firm ArborGen had created a loblolly pine with “increased wood density,” protesters descended on the company’s South Carolina headquarters. (The company had taken advantage of the same loophole as Living Carbon; ArborGen has said the pine was never commercially planted.) But after the New York Times wrote about Living Carbon’s first planting in February, there were no notable protests.
One reason could be that the risk is far from clear-cut. Several forest ecologists I spoke to indicated that trees that grow substantially faster than other species could outcompete rivals, potentially making Living Carbon’s “super tree” a weed. None of these scientists, though, seemed particularly worried about that happening.
“I think it’d be difficult to on purpose make a tree that was a weed—that was able to invade and take over a forest,” said Sean McMahon, a forest ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “I think it’d be impossible by accident to do it. I’m really not worried about a tree that takes over the world. I just think you’re going to break [the tree].”
He pointed out that the timber industry has been working with scientists for decades, hoping to engineer fast-growing trees. “This is a billion-dollar industry, and if they could make trees grow to harvest in five years, they would,” he said. But there tend to be tradeoffs. A faster-growing tree, for example, might be more vulnerable to pests.
The other reason for the quiet reception of these trees may be climate change: in a ravaged world, people may be more willing to tolerate risk. Keolu Fox, a geneticist at the University of California San Diego, is a co-director of science at Lab to Land, a nonprofit that is studying the potential for biotechnology to accelerate conservation goals on threatened lands, particularly in California. “We’re now talking about editing natural lands—that’s desperation,” Fox says. He thinks this desperation is appropriate, given the state of the climate crisis, though he’s not entirely convinced by Living Carbon’s approach.
Mellor suggests that gene drift should not be a problem: Living Carbon is planting only female trees, so the poplars don’t produce any pollen. That will not prevent wild-growing male trees from fertilizing the transgenic poplars, though the amount of resulting gene drift will likely be small and easily contained, Living Carbon says, especially given the company’s ability to avoid planting its trees near species that could fertilize them. But Mellor says he prefers to focus on other issues. Yes, some companies, like Monsanto, have used transgenic crops in exploitative ways, but that doesn’t mean transgenic technologies are inherently bad, he says. “Purity” is a silly standard, he says, and by trying to keep plants pure we’re missing the chance for needed innovations.
Living Carbon’s poplars seem to grow faster and survive droughts better than their natural counterparts, Mellor says. The rest of their genes match. “So, if, say, that competitively replaces the non-photosynthesis-enhanced version, is that a problem?” he asks. “And what kind of a problem is that? That’s the question now.”
Plant or pest?
In 2019, before Living Carbon was formed, the USDA announced its intention to update its regulatory approach to transgenic plants. The new rules went into effect in August 2020, just after Living Carbon submitted letters seeking exemption for its trees; the letters were reviewed and the trees were grandfathered in under the old rules.
Any further biotechnology the company develops will be analyzed using the new approach, which focuses on what traits are inserted into plants rather than how they get there. There are still ways to avoid scrutiny: products whose genetic modification could be accomplished through conventional breeding, for example, are not subject to regulation—a loophole watchdog groups find problematic. But according to USDA spokespeople, Living Carbon’s core technology—fast-growing trees, produced through genetic insertion—does not appear to qualify for such exemptions. If Living Carbon wants to make even a slight genetic tweak to its trees, the new product will require further examination.
The USDA’s first step is to determine whether there is “a plausible pathway to increased plant pest risk.” If the answer is yes, the company will need permits to move or plant such trees until the USDA can complete a full regulatory review.
Because the agency has not yet reviewed a tree with enhanced photosynthesis, officials declined to comment on whether the trait might constitute a pest risk. Even if it does not, the process might miss other risks: a 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine pointed out that pest risk is a narrow metric that does not capture all of the potential threats to forest health.
Nor does the USDA process offer a seal of approval suggesting the trees will actually work.
“One of the things that concerns me is [Living Carbon is] just focusing on carbon acquisition,” says Marjorie Lundgren, a researcher at Lancaster University in the UK who has studied tree species with natural adaptations leading to increased photosynthetic efficiency. She notes that trees need more than just carbon and sunlight to grow; they need water and nitrogen, too. “The reason they have such a high growth rate is because in the lab, you can just super-baby them—you can give them lots of water and fertilizer and everything they need,” she says. “Unless you put resources in, which is time and money, and not great for the environment, either, then you’re not going to have those same outcomes.”
Living Carbon’s paper acknowledges as much, citing nitrogen as a potential challenge and noting that how the trees move carbon may become a limiting factor. The extra sugars produced through what the company calls “enhanced photosynthesis” must be transported to the right places, something trees haven’t typically evolved to do.
The final, peer-reviewed version of the paper was amended to note the need to compare the grow-room results with field trials. And, as it happened, in April—the month the paper was published—Strauss sent Living Carbon an annual report with exciting news. He had noted statistically significant differences in height and drought tolerance between Living Carbon’s trees and the controls. He also found “nearly” significant differences in volume and diameter for some lines of engineered trees.
Capturing the carbon
Living Carbon seems aware of the general public distrust of genetic technologies. Hall, the CEO, has said the company does not want to be “the Monsanto of trees” and is registered as a public benefit corporation. That allows it to decline ethically dubious projects without worrying about being sued by shareholders for passing up profits.
The company advertises its focus on “restoring land that has been degraded or is underperforming.” On its website, the pitch to potential carbon-credit buyers emphasizes that the tree-planting projects serve to restore ecosystems.
One hope is that Mellor’s metal-accumulating trees will be able to restore soils at abandoned mining sites. Brenda Jo McManama, a campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, lives amid such landscapes in West Virginia. She has been fighting GE trees for almost a decade and remains opposed to the technology, but she understands the appeal of such remediating trees. One key problem: they remain experimental.
McManama notes, too, that landowners are allowed to harvest the wood from Living Carbon’s trees. This is not a problem for the climate—lumber still stores carbon—but it undercuts the idea that this is all about ecosystems. “Under their breath, it’s like, ‘Yeah, this will be a tree plantation,’” she says.
The initial planting site in Georgia, for example, belongs to Vince Stanley, whose family owns tens of thousands of acres of timber in the area. Stanley told the New York Times that the appeal of the trees was that he would be able to harvest them sooner than traditional trees.
Living Carbon contests the idea that it is creating “plantations,” which by definition would mean monocultures. But it has planted 12 different species on Stanley’s land. The company indicated that it is “interested” in partnering with timber companies; as Hall has noted, the top 10 in the US each own at least 1 million acres. But the Stanley site in Georgia is currently the only project that is technically classified as “improved forestry management.” (And even there, the company notes, the existing forest was regenerating very slowly due to wet conditions.)
Living Carbon funds its plantings—and makes its profits—by selling credits for the extra carbon the trees absorb. Currently, the company is offering “pre-purchases,” in which companies make a commitment to buy a future credit, paying a small portion of the fee up front to help Living Carbon survive long enough to deliver results.
The company has found that these buyers are more interested in projects with ecosystem benefits, which is why the first project, in Georgia, has become an outlier. There has been a subsequent planting in Ohio; this and all currently planned plantings are not near sawmills or in active timber harvesting regions. Thus, the company does not expect those trees to be harvested.
Wherever they plant trees—whether atop an old minefield or in a timber-producing forest—Living Carbon will pay the landowner an annual per-acre fee and cover the cost of plant site preparation and planting. At the end of the contract, after 30 or 40 years, the landowner can do whatever they want with the trees. If the trees grow as well as is hoped, Living Carbon assumes that even on timber land, their size would mean they’d be turned into “long-duration wood products,” like lumber for construction, rather than shredded to make pulp or paper.
Until recently, Living Carbon was also selling small-scale credits to individual consumers. When we spoke in February, Mellor pointed me toward Patch, a software company with a carbon-credit sales platform. The Georgia project was marketed there as “biotech-enhanced reforestation.” The credits were offered as a monthly subscription, at a price of $40 per metric ton of carbon removed.
When I pressed Mellor for details about how the company calculated this price, given the lack of any solid data on the trees’ performance, he told me something the company had not acknowledged in any public-facing documentation: 95% of the saplings at the Georgia site were not photosynthesis-enhanced. The GE poplar trees were planted in randomized experimental plots, with controls for comparison, and contribute only a small amount to the site’s projected carbon savings. Despite the advertising, then, customers were really paying for a traditional reforestation project with a small experiment tucked inside.
A spokesperson for Living Carbon clarified that this planting makeup was dictated by the standards of the American Carbon Registry, the organization that independently certified the resulting credits, and that subsequent plantings have included a higher proportion of enhanced trees. By partnering with a new credit registry, Living Carbon hopes its 2024 plantings will be closer to 50% photosynthesis-enhanced.
That carbon credits can be offered for the Georgia site at all serves as a reminder: old-fashioned trees, without any new genes, already serve as a viable carbon drawdown technology. “There’s 80,000 species of trees in the world. Maybe you don’t have to throw nickel in them and CRISPR them,” said McMahon, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “Maybe just find the ones that actually grow fast [and] store carbon a long time.” Or, he added, pass regulation to protect existing forests, which he said could help the climate more than even a massive adoption of high-tech trees.
Grayson Badgley, an ecologist at the nonprofit CarbonPlan, notes that the cost of the credits on Patch was on the high side for a reforestation project. CarbonPlan examines the efficacy of various carbon removal strategies, a necessary intervention given that carbon markets are ripe for abuse. Several recent investigations have shown that offset projects can dramatically inflate their benefits. One major regulatory group, the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market, recently announced a new set of rules, and Verra, a US nonprofit that certifies offset projects, also plans to phase out its old approach to forestry projects.
Given the increasingly shaky reputation of carbon markets, Badgley finds Living Carbon’s lack of transparency troubling. “People should know exactly what they’re buying when they plug in their credit card number,” he says.
Living Carbon says it began phasing out direct-to-consumer sales in late 2022, and that the final transaction was made late February, not long after the Georgia planting. (In total, subscribers funded 600 trees—a small portion of the 8,900 transgenic trees Living Carbon had planted as of late May.) I purchased a credit for research purposes in early February; as of March 1, when I canceled the subscription, I had received no details clarifying the makeup of the Georgia planting, nor any updates noting that the program was ending. I was also struck by the fact that in February, before Strauss delivered his data, Living Carbon was already touting field trial results on its website, ones that were even more impressive than its grow-room results. After I inquired about the source of these figures, the company removed them from the website.
The company says it’s fully transparent with the large-scale buyers who make up the core of its business strategy. What seemed to me like problematic embellishments and elisions were, according to spokespeople, the growing pains of a young startup with an evolving approach that is still learning how to communicate about its work.
They also pointed out that many of the problems with forestry carbon credits come from the projects meant to protect forests against logging. Such credits are granted based on a counterfactual: how many trees would be destroyed in the absence of protection? That’s impossible to know with any precision. How much extra carbon Living Carbon’s trees absorb will be measured much more clearly. And if the trees don’t work, Living Carbon won’t be able to deliver its promised credits or get paid for them. “The risk that in the end [the trees] won’t deliver the amount of carbon that’s expected is on us—it’s not on the climate,” a company spokesperson said.
Pines and pollen
Living Carbon has bigger plans in the works (which will likely need to undergo USDA scrutiny). Mellor hopes the photosynthesis-enhanced loblolly pines will be ready for deployment within two years, which would open opportunities for more collaboration with timber companies. Experiments with metal-accumulating trees are underway, with funding from the US Department of Energy. Last year, the company launched a longer-term project that aims to engineer algae to produce sporopollenin, a biopolymer that coats spores and pollen and can last 100 times longer than other biological materials—and maybe longer than that, the company says. This could create a secure, long-term way to store carbon.
Living Carbon is not alone in this field. Lab to Land, the nonprofit targeting California ecosystems, is considering how carbon markets might drive demand for deep-rooted grasses that store carbon. But Lab to Land is moving far more slowly than Living Carbon—it’s at least a decade away from the deployment of any biotechnology, one of the co-directors of science told me—and, as it progresses, it is building multiple councils to consider the ethics of biotechnology.
A Living Carbon spokesperson suggested that “every scientist is in a way a bioethicist,” and that the company operates with careful morals. As a startup, Living Carbon can’t afford to dither—it needs to make a profit—and Hall says the planet can’t afford to dither, either. To solve climate change, we have to start trying potential technology now. She sees the current plantings as further studies that will help the company and the world understand these trees.
Even with the new data, Steve Strauss remained circumspect about the trees’ long-term prospects. Living Carbon has only provided enough funding for the Oregon field tests to extend just beyond the current growing season; Strauss indicated that were this his company, he’d “want more time.”
Still, Strauss was the one academic scientist I spoke to who seemed enthused about Living Carbon’s plantings. He said they’d made a breakthrough, though one that is less scientific than social—a first step beyond the confines of test-plot fields. As a longtime proponent of genetic engineering, he thinks research into biotechnical solutions to climate change has been stalled for too long. The climate crisis is growing worse. Now someone is pushing forward. “Maybe this isn’t the ideal thing,” he told me when we first spoke in February. “And maybe they’re pushing this one product too hard, too fast. But I’m sort of glad it’s happening.”
Boyce Upholt is a writer based in New Orleans.
This unlikely fuel could power cleaner trucks and ships
Companies trying to cut their climate impacts in the marine shipping sector are looking to alternative fuels, including methanol and ammonia. Amogy’s system could be a better option than combustion engines, though, since it would limit pollution that can trap heat in the atmosphere and harm human health and the environment.
I’ll note here that ammonia itself isn’t very pleasant to be around, and in fact it can be toxic. Proponents argue that safety protocols for handling it are pretty well established in industry, and professionals will be able to transport and use the chemical safely.
Amogy’s systems aren’t quite big enough for ships yet. The company is working on one more demonstration that will help it get closer to a commercial system: a tugboat, which it plans to launch later this year in upstate New York.
Eventually, the company plans to make modules that can fit together, making the systems large enough to power ships. Amogy’s first commercial maritime system will be deployed with Southern Devall, which transports ammonia on barges today in the US.
Global ammonia production topped 200 million metric tons in 2022, most of it used for fertilizer. The problem is, the vast majority of that was produced using fossil fuels.
For Amogy’s systems to cut emissions significantly, they’ll need to be powered by ammonia that’s made without producing a lot of greenhouse-gas emissions, likely using renewable electricity or maybe carbon capture systems.
According to Amogy’s estimates, supply for these low-carbon ammonia sources could reach 70 million tons by 2030. But those projects will need to make it out of the planning stages and actually start producing ammonia before it can be used in fertilizers, tractors, or tugboats.
- Making low-carbon ammonia could require a whole lot of green hydrogen.
There’s a lot of money flowing into ocean chemistry. A new initiative called Carbon to Sea is injecting $50 million over the next five years into a technique called ocean alkalinity enhancement. The basic idea is that adding alkaline substances into seawater could help the oceans suck up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, combating climate change.
Effective infrastructure enables universal data intelligence
As data growth accelerates and data strategies are refined, organizations are under pressure to modernize their data infrastructure in a way that is cost-effective, secure, scalable, socially responsible, and compliant with regulations.
Organizations with legacy infrastructures often own hardware from multiple vendors, particularly if IoT and OT data is involved. Their challenge, then, is to create a seamless, unified system that takes advantage of automation to optimize routine processes and apply AI and machine learning to that data for further insights.
“That’s one of my focus areas at Hitachi Vantara,” says Patel. “How do we combine the power of the data coming in from OT and IoT? How can we provide insights to people in a heterogeneous environment if they don’t have time to go from one machine to another? That’s what it means to create a seamless data plane.”
Social responsibility includes taking a hard look at the organization’s carbon footprint and finding data infrastructure solutions that support emissions reduction goals. Hitachi Vantara estimates that emissions attributable to data storage infrastructure can be reduced as much as 96% via a combination of changing energy sources, upgrading infrastructure and hardware, adopting software to manage storage, and automating workflows—while also improving storage performance and cutting costs.
The hybrid cloud approach
While many organizations follow a “cloud-first” approach, a more nuanced strategy is gaining momentum among forward-thinking CEOs. It’s more of a “cloud where it makes sense” or “cloud smart” strategy.
In this scenario, organizations take a strategic approach to where they place applications, data, and workloads, based on security, financial and operational considerations. There are four basic building blocks of this hybrid approach: seamless management of workloads wherever they are located; a data plane that delivers suitable capacity, cost, performance, and data protection; a simplified, highly resilient infrastructure; and AIOps, which provides an intelligent automated control plane with observability across IT operations.
“I think hybrid is going to stay for enterprises for a long time,” says Patel. “It’s important to be able to do whatever you want with the data, irrespective of where it resides. It could be on-prem, in the cloud, or in a multi-cloud environment.”
Clearing up cloud confusion
The public cloud is often viewed as a location: a go-to place for organizations to unlock speed, agility, scalability, and innovation. That place is then contrasted with legacy on-premises infrastructure environments that don’t provide the same user-friendly, as-a-service features associated with cloud. Some IT leaders assume the public cloud is the only place they can reap the benefits of managed services and automation to reduce the burden of operating their own infrastructure.