It's a bold solution.

Green Guardians

There's no shortage of worldwide efforts aimed at planting millions of more trees to help offset our planet's CO2-poisoned atmosphere. But entrepreneurial scientists at a biotech firm called Living Carbon are taking those efforts a step further: creating gene-hacked "mother trees" that are freakishly good at absorbing loads of carbon dioxide.

If four million acres of these trees are planted by 2030, the company estimates, they could sap more than 600 megatons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, or about 1.6 percent of global yearly emissions — a more-than-respectable dent, if the company's numbers hold up.

So far, as part of a modestly sized trial, the startup has planted around 300 acres of its supercharged variant of poplar trees.

"None of what we do matters if it just all stays at the greenhouse," Living Carbon CEO Maddie Hall told The Guardian.

Crop Up

Living Carbon's approach is to make its trees more efficient at photosynthesis, a process in which plants use CO2 and sunlight to create sugar, and as a byproduct, oxygen. That's not an easy thing to do, but its scientists say they've come up with a clever workaround that involves diverting more carbon — normally released as it "respires" in sunlight — back into the tree's biomass.

In essence, Living Carbon's trees are meant to grow bigger and faster while keeping more carbon locked away. A study published this year found that the gene-hacked poplars stored up to 27 percent more CO2 while growing up to 53 percent in biomass.

Beyond trees, other ventures, like a major one led by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, have looked at how crops like rice, corn and wheat could be genetically engineered for greater carbon absorption capabilities.

Since those crops don't live as long as trees, researchers have looked into engineering them with larger and deeper roots that can keep their carbon stored underground for longer, even after they're harvested or dead.

Field Training

Before they can tackle our planet's greenhouse gasses, however, the gene-hacked plants from Living Carbon, the Salk Project, and others will need to leave the greenhouse. Critics note that these plants are not only unproven at a large scale, but also remain untested in real-world, fluctuating climates.

Propagating millions of trees that sequester carbon for longer could have unexpected consequences on their natural habitats, too. And with crops, it's unclear how bolstering their carbon storage could affect the viability of their soil.

Other skeptics note that there's little reason to hope for superplants to save us all, when we could focus on continuing to plant more trees, overhauling our energy infrastructure, and otherwise cutting down emissions instead.

"Like so many novel tech approaches to tackling CO2, [the development of such plants] represents a significant distraction," Ben Raskin, head of horticulture and agroforestry at the Soil Association, told The Guardian.

But, as Hall puts it: "We are in a climate emergency."

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