Dissecting the CRISPR-baby stories
After the 2017 meeting, He started reading biographies of scientific risk-takers who were ultimately hailed as heroes, from Edward Jenner, creator of the first vaccine, to Robert Edwards, pioneer of in vitro fertilization (IVF). In January 2019, he wrote to government investigators: “I firmly believe that what I am doing is to promote the progress of human civilization. History will stand on my side.”
Looking back at my notes from the 2017 meeting, I discovered that He had remembered only the first half of that provocative statement. It continued: “What’s going on right now is cowboy science … but that doesn’t mean that’s the best way to proceed … we should take a lesson from our history and do better the next time around.”
Learning from history?
Kevin Davies’s Editing Humanity follows a circuitous path through the remarkably diverse experiments and laboratories where the CRISPR puzzle was pieced together. The story of discovery is gripping, not least because Davies, a geneticist turned editor and writer, skillfully weaves together a wealth of detail in a page-turning narrative. The book gives a textured picture of the intersection of academic science with the business of biotechnology, exploring the enormous competition, conflict, and capital that have surrounded CRISPR’s commercialization.
However, Davies’s book is heavy on the business of gene editing, light on the humanity. The narrative emphasizes the arenas of scientific discovery and technological innovation as though they alone are where the future is made.
Humanity first appears as something more than an object of gene editing in the last line of the book: “CRISPR is moving faster than society can keep up. To where is up to all of us.” Yet most of us are missing from the story. Admittedly, the book’s focus is the gene editors and their tools. But for readers already primed to see science as the driver of progress, and society as recalcitrant and retrograde until it eventually “catches up,” this telling reinforces that consequential myth.
Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker cleaves even more closely to scientific laboratories, following the personalities behind the making of CRISPR. The main protagonist of his sprawling book is Doudna, but it also profiles the many other figures, from graduate students to Nobel laureates, whose work intersected with hers. In always admiring and sometimes loving detail, Isaacson narrates the excitement of discovery, the heat of competition, and the rise of scientific celebrity—and, in He’s case, infamy. It is a fascinating story of rivalry and even pettiness, albeit with huge stakes in the form of prizes, patents, profits, and prestige.
Yet for all its detail, the book tells a narrow story. It is a conventional celebration of discovery and invention that sometimes slides into rather breathless celebrity profile (and gossip). Apart from some chapters of Isaacson’s own rather superficial ruminations on “ethics,” his storytelling rehearses clichés more than it invites reflection and learning. Even the portraits of the people feel distorted by his flattering lens.
The one exception is He, who gets a few chapters as an unwelcome interloper. Isaacson makes little effort to understand his origins and motivations. He is a nobody with a “smooth personality and a thirst for fame” who attempts to force his way into an elite club where he has no business being. Disaster ensues.
He’s story ends with a “fair trial” and a prison sentence. Here Isaacson parrots a state media report, unwittingly playing propagandist. The official Chinese story was crafted to conclude the He affair and align Chinese science with the responsible rather than the rogue.
These stories of heroic science take for granted what makes a hero—and a villain. Davies’s account is considerably more careful and nuanced, but it too shifts to casting stones before seeking to understand the sources of failure—where He’s project came from, how a person trained at elite American universities could have believed he would be valorized, not condemned, and how he could get so far without realizing how deep a hole he had dug for himself.
My overwhelming sense from my interviews with He is that far from “going rogue,” he was trying to win a race. His failure lay not in refusing to listen to his scientific elders, but in listening too intently, accepting their encouragement and absorbing things said in the inner spaces of science about where genome editing (and humanity) are headed. Things like: CRISPR will save humanity from the burden of disease and infirmity. Scientific progress will prevail as it has always done when creative and courageous pioneers push boundaries. Genome editing of the germline—embryos, eggs, or sperm that will pass changes down to future generations—is inevitable; the only question is who, when, and where.
He heard—and believed in—the messianic promise of the power to edit. As Davies writes, “If fixing a single letter in the genetic code of a fellow human being isn’t the coveted chalice of salvation, I don’t know what is.”
Indeed, as even Isaacson notes, the National Academies had sent similar signals, leaving the door open to germline engineering for “serious diseases or conditions.” He Jiankui was roundly criticized for making an edit that was “medically unnecessary”—a genetic change he hoped would make babies genetically resistant to HIV. There are, the critics argued, easier and safer ways to avoid transmitting the virus. But he believed that the terrible stigma in China against HIV-positive people made it a justified target. And the Academies left room for that call: “It is important to note that such concepts as ‘reasonable alternatives’ and ‘serious disease or condition’ … are necessarily vague. Different societies will interpret these concepts in the context of their diverse historical, cultural, and social characteristics.”
Science-centric storytelling implies that Science sits outside of society, that it deals primarily with pure arenas of nature and knowledge. But that is a false narrative.
He understood this as an authorization. These are the true origins of his grotesque experiment. The picture of He, and the scientific community he was embedded in, is a rather more ambiguous one than the virtuous science of Isaacson’s telling. Or, rather, it’s a more human one, in which knowledge and technical acumen aren’t necessarily accompanied by wisdom and may instead be colored by ambition, greed, and myopia. Isaacson does the scientists a disservice by presenting them as the makers of the future rather than as people confronting the awesome power of the tools they have created, attempting (and, often, failing) to temper promises of progress with the humility to recognize that they are out of their depth.
Another cost of science-centric storytelling is the way it implies that science sits outside of society, that it deals primarily with the pure arenas of nature and knowledge. But that is a false narrative. For instance, the commercial business of IVF is a crucial part of the story, and yet it receives remarkably little attention in Davies’s and Isaacson’s accounts. In this regard, their books reflect a deficit in the genome-editing debates. Scientific authorities have tended to proceed as though the world is as governable as a laboratory bench, and as if anyone who thinks rationally thinks like them.
These science-centric stories sideline the people in whose name the research is done. Eben Kirksey’s The Mutant Project brings those people into the picture. His book, too, is a tour of the actors at the frontiers of genome editing, but for him those actors also include patients, activists, artists, and scholars who engage with disability and disease as lived experiences and not merely as DNA molecules. In Kirksey’s book, issues of justice are entangled with the way stories are told about how bodies should be—and not be. This wrests questions of progress from the grip of science and technology.
Like Davies, Kirksey uses the He affair to frame his story. A skilled anthropologist, he is at his best when drawing out people’s own stories about what is at stake for them. Some of the most remarkable interviews in the book are with the patients from He Jiankui’s trial, including an HIV-positive medical professional who became more deeply committed to He’s project after he was fired from his job because his HIV status was discovered.
Kirksey’s attention to human beings as more than engineerable bodies, and to the desires that drive the imperative to edit, invites us to recognize the extraordinary peril of reaching into the gene-editing tool kit for salvation.
That peril is too often obscured by hastily spun stories of progress. On the final morning of the genome-editing summit in Hong Kong, less than 24 hours after He had presented his CRISPR-babies experiment, the conference organizing committee issued a statement simultaneously rebuking him and laying a pathway for those who would follow in his footsteps. Behind the statement was a story: one in which technology is racing ahead, and society needs to just accept it—and affirm it. A member of that committee told Kirksey why they had rushed to judgment: “The first person who puts it on paper wins.”
So far, the CRISPR story has been about racing to be the first to write—not just scientific papers, but the nucleotides of the genome and rules for the human future. The rush to write—and win—the future leaves little room for learning from patterns of the past. Stories of technological futures, thrilling though they may be, substitute a thin narrative of progress for the richness and fragility of the human story.
We need to listen to more and better storytellers. Our common future depends upon it.
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.