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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? content piece image
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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.  


Unless we 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 falls short. What can we do about it?

We’re often given advice that we should be doing more as individuals to help save the world. Turning down plastic straws, switching lights off, using less water and donating to plant trees. All good things, but it feels like we’re trying to stop a tidal wave with a paper umbrella. While we mean well, the temperature keeps rising; what good is a plastic-free straw when the world is on fire? The size of the challenge can be paralyzing, but we must find a way to graduate from these comforting placebos.

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

Our surest bet in the climate fight? Transformative technological solutions. For many, this means wind, solar, electric vehicles, nuclear fission, and—someday—fusion. But there’s a sleeping giant we’re not talking about. It’s one of the most powerful phenomena we know of: it can bridge the nano to the macro, spin great trees out of gas and light, and coordinate enormous flows of energy and matter into the incredible variety of life that we see on our blue planet. With it 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’s not easy to store energy

The story of climate change is a story about energy. Truly renewable energy needs efficient storage. For biology, this is simple: it can cram energy down into dense packets of carbon-carbon bonds just by being exposed to sunlight. While renewable energy is better than non-renewable energy, the best places to make that energy often aren’t located where people need that energy. There’s a lot of sun in the desert, but not many people.

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

Problem 2: current energy consumption is far too high

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

What about engineering plants to be better at photosynthesis? It’s not outside the realm of the possible. Plants have evolved for eons and photosynthesis for even longer than that. But it hasn’t evolved in the conditions that we can provide plants with today. In one piece of engineering, biologists increased photosynthetic efficacy by 40%. On a bigger scale, this could pave the way to more efficient crop production and fix atmospheric CO2 in the process.

Problem 3: no way to fix carbon at scale

Enemy number one in the climate change fight is, as we all know, carbon. Ever since our species discovered combustion we’ve been spending carbon to buy energy. Now, we use energy to yank carbon back out of the atmosphere. Biology has been doing this for 3.4 billion years and is an obvious candidate for rolling back our gaseous vandalism of the last 200 years.

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

We’re close to solving these problems, but not quite yet

If some of these ideas seem fanciful, it’s not because biology lacks the capacity to make them happen. Not at all. The real problem is our inability to understand biology well enough to turn these ideas into reality. We live in a time before the coming age of real biological mastery. When our species reaches that threshold, though, our progress to date will be “the early days”. While our biotechnological advances are accelerating, they’re not going nearly fast enough. Not yet.

But I have good news: there’s huge potential for improvement in the way we carry out biological experiments. Although biology seems infinitely complex, our experiments are usually planned in word documents, done with hand-held pipettes and analyzed in spreadsheets. These are twentieth-century ways of solving twenty-first-century problems. The gap between the challenge of engineering biology and the tools we use is huge, but this is a gap we can cross.

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

We’ve a long way to go. Success is far from certain. But, if we can get biology on our side, we stand a chance of seeing an incredible future reveal itself to us.