On December 3rd and 4th, 2019, Boston University hosted a workshop to explore potential solutions to climate change using systems biology and synthetic biology. According to the latest United Nations Emissions Gap Report published last month, global greenhouse gas emissions have to fall by 7.6 percent a year between 2020 and 2030 to avoid disastrous consequences. The IPCC has warned that the changes in the climate already underway are leading to “unprecedented and irreversible shifts in lands, oceans, and the frozen parts of the planet, making them hostile to life.”
“[Our view] is that there’s no magic bullet to the climate challenge, so we need to lay out and vet all promising approaches,” said co-organizer Charles DeLisi, Professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University. “Prior to this meeting, the potential role of biotech received very little attention. We’re hoping some of the ideas generated by engaging various communities—climate scientists, biotechnologists, ethicists, policy experts—will be helpful in formulating a scientific plan to begin addressing this challenge.” DeLisi wrote an interesting article on Biology Direct where he explores the role of synthetic biology in climate change mitigation.
There was a buzz throughout the two days as engaging panels tackled questions such as: How might systems and synthetic biology (SSB) contribute to reductions in emissions and removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere? How might SSB be used to increase the productivity and nutritional value of agricultural crops, limit biodiversity loss and extinctions, and increase plant and animal resilience to increasing acidification of the oceans? Have we thought enough about what we can do positively with carbon?
Workshop participants also discussed challenges such as urgency — how do we make the case to more people that climate change really is a threat and we need to act now? — as well as social justice, particularly focusing on how climate change has the greatest impact on those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Another important conversation focused on some of the ethical, legal, social, and governance issues that will undoubtedly arise as we use SSB to tackle climate change.
Science communication and policy
One of the biggest — and timeliest — topics of discussion was that of science communication and policy. DeLisi took the stage to discuss the current societal climate, where social media and lawmakers alike give power to science deniers. One particularly concerning problem, he said, is that it is increasingly acceptable for people to have an opinion against data, enabling them to simply dismiss data or not believe it simply because the data poses an inconvenience for their business or political agenda.
Christina Agapakis, Creative Director at Ginkgo Bioworks, agreed that making biology easier to engineer is a social problem, a political problem, and an economic problem as much as it is a technical one. She told audience members that it is important to consider the concept of heterogeneous engineering: which is the intersection of nature, technology, and society. Science communication, she says, has been framed as a component of heterogeneous engineering.
“When people disagree with us on questions about science, technology, and policy, it is not because they don’t have the same facts, it’s because we are disagreeing on a more fundamental level, on how we see the world and what we want it to look like,” she said.
Opentrons founder Will Canine said that Agapakis’ message resonated with him. “I would echo what [Christina] said in her talk, that separating science on one day and policy/politics on the next day creates an unhelpful dualism. Climate change will require everyone reach outside of their own comfort zones and engage more with people from different backgrounds and communities. It is a problem that spans disciplines, and to solve it we’ll need to do the same.”
Workshop participants also highlighted some of their work to tackle some of the most important climate change issues. June Medford, Professor in the Biology Department at Colorado State University, presented her research to engineer salt tolerance in crops. Climate change is making soils saltier, so her team engineered Arabidopsis and rice plants to purify salt water and secrete fresh water using a synthetic desalination circuit. So, not only could her system make soil healthier, it could also increase available freshwater needed for farming.
Chris Voigt, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT, highlighted his work on nitrogen fixation by plants. Because cereal crops do not form symbiotic relationships with microbes to acquire nitrogen from the soil, our current agricultural processes for cereals are responsible for a significant amount of greenhouse gasses and fertilizer overuse. Some of Voigt’s students started Pivot Bio to address this problem by engineering nitrogen-producing microbes for corn. Voigt is also working on moving the complete microbial nitrogen fixation pathway into the chloroplast and mitochondria of plants, and the SynSym project to engineer nitrogen-fixing symbioses between bacteria and plants.
Stan Wullschleger, Director of the Environmental Sciences Division and the Climate Change Science Institute at ORNL presented his work harnessing plant genomics for CO2 capture and storage in soils. Engineering a plant pathway (CAM) into C3 photosynthesis plants has a great potential for increasing water-use efficiency and tolerance to stress from drought and high salt concentrations in the soil.
Mary Lidstrom, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Washington, spoke about two main synthetic biology approaches to methane mitigation: reducing emissions and consuming it from the atmosphere through methanotrophs, microbes that naturally consume methane (or even by engineering E. coli and yeast). In a collaboration with LanzaTech, Lidstrom’s group is converting natural gas to fuels using methanotrophic bacteria.
Ron Milo, a systems biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and his team recently announced a strain of E. coli that can get all its carbon from CO2, much like plants. The work could lead to engineered microbes that suck CO2 out of the air, tackling climate change while at the same time producing medicines, biofuels, food, and other products.
I’m looking forward to reading the workshop’s report, which, according to BU The Daily Free Press, will be produced by the organizers.
Meeting the faces engineering climate change solutions
Several amazing companies were in attendance at the workshop. Below is a more in-depth list of companies using synthetic biology to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Do you know any other startups? Drop us a note.
|Phytonix||Using cyanobacteria to produce biochemicals with carbon dioxide.|
|Photanol||Engineered cyanobacteria to process carbon dioxide (CO2) and sunlight into valuable chemicals.|
|EnobraQ||Technology enabling the use of CO2 as an industrial fermentation feedstock. Photosynthesis technology to generate crops/plants yield improvements.|
|Ingenza||The company is partnering with the University of Dundee to engineer E. coli to capture, store and recycle carbon dioxide|
|LanzaTech||Engineered microbes that convert carbon rich wastes and residues into valuable fuel and chemical products through a process of gas fermentation.|
|Newlight||Their biocatalyst works by pulling carbon out of methane or carbon dioxide, and combining it with hydrogen and oxygen to synthesize a PHA-based biopolymer material, called AirCarbon.|
|NovoNutrients||Transforming waste industrial CO2 into feed and food, through industrial biotech – initially for the fast growing aquaculture sector.|
|Visolis||Advanced bioengineering combined with chemical processing to provide sustainable, carbon-negative materials.|
|White Dog Labs||Developed MixoFerm™, a fermentation technology that consumes sugar and gases, thus increasing product yield in industrial fermentation|
|Zymochem||Designed a new biosynthetic pathway to make chemicals designed to not lose carbon as carbon dioxide, with superior theoretical yields, up to 50% better than existing state-of-the-art technology|
|b.fab||Reprogramming the Escherichia coli metabolism to use formate to produce chemicals.|
|Basilisk||Bio-based self healing concrete: The technology is based on micro-organisms that produce limestone, repairing crack formation in concrete structures.|
|Carbo Culture||A modular reactor enables them to convert biomass waste into a biocarbon material that stays stable for hundreds of years, keeping it out of the atmosphere.|
Good ideas don’t just belong to start ups. Several iGEM team projects this year focused on the issue of climate change:
Do you have any ideas on how the synthetic biology community could help tackle climate change? Please leave your comments below.8