Watch CBS News

Biotech startup Living Carbon enhances trees' ability to capture climate-warming CO2

Bay Area biotech startup boosts tree growth to capture carbon
Bay Area biotech startup boosts tree growth to capture carbon 03:52

HAYWARD -- A Bay Area biotech startup is fighting climate change by genetically enhancing the ability of trees to capture and store carbon dioxide. 

Nearly a third of the world's land is covered in trees. Simplistically, they suck in and store carbon dioxide, and breath out fresh oxygen - an exquisite balancing act.

However, that balancing act has been under threat due to many factors, including deforestation, where trees are cut down, burned, and damaged on a large-scale basis.

Add to that, the unchecked burning of fossil fuel. These factors are putting more climate-warming CO2 into the atmosphere than Mother Nature can handle.

"We've thrown that system without our biosphere which is in and of itself an ecosystem we've thrown that system out of whack," noted Maddie Hall, CEO of Bay Area biotech startup Living Carbon.

The company hopes to nudge the system back on track by developing very special poplar trees. These trees are taking root inside a greenhouse on the Peninsula.

"What we're trying to add to the picture of carbon capture is to utilize the natural power of plants," noted Yuman Tao, Living Carbon's chief science officer and synthetic biologist.

These young trees are bioengineered to help fight climate change. They will grow bigger faster and store more CO2. They accomplish this through genetic engineering. The trees are genetically enhanced for carbon capture and storage.

"Living Carbon uses advanced biotech tools to improve the growth rate, carbon capture, and climate resilience of trees," explained Hall, as she showed CBS News Bay Area her company's laboratory in the East Bay.

The science team is seeking to enhance the ability of these trees to perform photosynthesis. To accomplish this feat, the scientists incorporated genes from other plants, including algae, into the poplar's DNA. The company says their seedlings can accumulate 50% more biomass and capture more than twice the carbon per acre.

One study published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Forests found that the modified trees grew up to 53% faster in just four months when compared to standard trees.

"I was super, super excited," exclaimed Tao.

Living Carbon is now testing its modified trees outdoors on underused, damaged land, including a bottomland hardwood site in Georgia and an abandoned mine site in Ohio.

"We specifically focus on planting those trees not on land where trees are growing well, but where there's been some sort of human disturbance," said Hall.

The company is now working with Oregon State University on a 4-year field trial involving over 600 trees.

"We specifically focus on planting those trees not on land where trees are growing well, but where there's been some sort of human disturbance," said Hall.

The startup has already raised more than $36 million and has received $500,000 in grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Living Carbon reports its poplars can capture up to 27% more carbon. The startup hopes to sell credits for carbon offsets.

The Frontier Fund seeks to accelerate the development of carbon removal technologies by investing in promising startups. The fund, founded by Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, and McKinsey to name the largest entities, is investing in Living Carbon. Hall says there's been a lot of interest in their technology and model.

"The feedback has been really positive. We've gotten people from over 100 countries reaching out to us wanting to buy trees," said Hall.

However, there are critics. The Global Justice Ecology Project maintains these modified trees are a growing threat, and in a campaign has warned about unintended consequences, including a concern that the trees may potentially threaten forest ecosystems.

Hall says there are safeguards in place and that climate change is an urgent problem.

"We should be trying every solution possible to mitigate climate change to give ourselves a chance," said Hall.

So far, the startup has planted over 170,000 trees, hoping the power of its plants will take root and be part of a cool solution to a warming planet.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.