Home Systems biology We need biology in the fight against climate change. But are we ready to use it?

We need biology in the fight against climate change. But are we ready to use it?


The following article is an opinion piece written by Markus Gershater. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.

If we do not act, climate change will cause untold suffering. Biology is one of the most powerful technologies available and could play a huge role in the fight. But our ability to work with it is insufficient. What can we do about it?

We are often told that we should do more as individuals to help save the world. Refuse plastic straws, turn off lights, use less water and donate to plant trees. All good stuff, but it feels like trying to stop a tidal wave with a paper umbrella. Although we mean well, the temperature keeps rising; what good is a plastic-free straw when the world is on fire? The scale of the challenge can be paralyzing, but we must find a way out of these comforting placebos.

Here’s my belief: we can’t even rely on business leaders or governments to make enough change to avert disaster, let alone individuals. The kind of climate change impacts that would force the emergency on these groups will only happen once it’s too late, once too much CO2 is in the atmosphere.

Our safest bet in the climate fight? Transformative technology solutions. For many, that means wind, solar, electric vehicles, nuclear fission and, one day, fusion. But there is a sleeping giant we are not talking about. It’s one of the most powerful phenomena we know of: it can connect the nano to the macro, spin tall trees out of gas and light, and coordinate huge flows of energy and matter in space. amazing variety of life we ​​see on our blue planet. . With her on our side, the odds change in our favor. But we don’t know how to use it. Not yet.

This sleeping giant? Biology.

Problem 1: It is not easy to store energy

The story of climate change is a story of energy. Really renewable energy needs efficient storage. For biology, it’s simple: it can pack energy into dense packets of carbon-carbon bonds just by being exposed to sunlight. Although renewable energy is better than non-renewable energy, the best places to Craft that energy is often not localized where people need this energy. There is a lot of sun in the desert, but few people.

But imagine a world where renewable electricity is stored in biological hydrocarbon-based systems. Compact and emission-free, they can be shipped wherever they are needed. Imagine a teeming forest providing all the jet fuel we could ever need or a living floating island that heats homes far away in the deepest tundra.

Problem 2: Current power consumption is way too high

Humans do a lot of energy-intensive things. After energy production itself, agriculture is the second largest carbon emitter. Producing meat is particularly bad, but cultured meat or meat substitutes would be an improvement. Making nitrogen fertilizers tells the same story, but if we created crops that could fix their own nitrogen, that would be transformative.

What about engineering plants to enhance photosynthesis? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Plants have evolved for eons and photosynthesis for even longer than that. But it did not evolve under the conditions that we can offer plants today. In a piece of engineering, biologists have increased photosynthetic efficiency by 40%. On a larger scale, this could pave the way for more efficient agricultural production and fix atmospheric CO2 In the process.

Problem 3: No way to sequester carbon on a large scale

The number one enemy in the fight against climate change is, as we all know, carbon. Ever since our species discovered combustion, we have spent carbon to buy energy. Today, we use energy to extract carbon from the atmosphere. Biology has been doing this for 3.4 billion years and is a clear candidate to roll back our gaseous vandalism of the past 200 years.

How would we do this on a large scale? Maybe it’s huge seas of algae, dense plantations creating carbon-based products, or bioprocesses producing bricks with the strength of seashells to trap carbon in our buildings in the form of calcium carbonate. .

We are close to fixing these issues, but not quite yet

If some of these ideas seem fanciful, it’s not because biology doesn’t have the ability to make them happen. No way. The real problem is our inability to understand biology well enough to turn these ideas into reality. We live in an era before the approaching era of true biological mastery. When our species reaches this threshold, however, our progress to date will be “the early days.” Although our biotechnological progress is accelerating, it is not fast enough. Not yet.

But I have good news: there is huge potential for improvement in the way we conduct biological experiments. Although biology seems infinitely complex, our experiments are usually planned in Word documents, carried out with hand pipettes and analyzed in spreadsheets. These are 20th century ways of solving 21st century problems. The gap between the challenge of biological engineering and the tools we use is huge, but it’s a gap we can bridge.

Cloud-based computing, AI, and automation are commonplace in other industries. They have the most to offer when it comes to the intricacies of biology: powerful experiments conducted using automation can produce the datasets scientists will need to gain unimaginable insights. When we bring AI into the mix, the power of human ingenuity will be unleashed to design a myriad of biological solutions. We’ll fix the carbon, do more with less, and combine it all with renewable energy sources to ensure we can support our global population without destroying the natural world.

We have a long way to go. Success is far from certain. But, if we can get biology on our side, we have a chance for an incredible future to unfold.