Biotech + Climate
brb gonna make some super-trees
The synthetic biology industry at its core is about sustainability. We imagine a future where we can use biology to grow many of the things we need to enable modern life - food, agricultural inputs, plastics, textiles, and more.
We will have the ability to make new products that were never before possible, but the real value is to use living machines to make materials that are less extractive of the Earth’s resources, products that are carbon negative, and to turn waste into valuable things. In the short term most of these biotech solutions will be used in controlled environments, but in the longterm they will be released into the world and allowed to grow autonomously.
Here are a few areas where biotech may have significant impact on removal and reduction of atmospheric carbon.
Fermentation derived food ingredients
Reducing reliance on animal agriculture and increasing plant based diets is a key climate solution. Producing ingredients using fermentation, such as milk proteins or other formerly animal derived ingredients, is one such strategy. Beyond this we can use fermentation to grow microbes to support healthy human microbiomes (probiotics), as well as use microbes themselves as new protein sources (single celled protein). Solid state fermentation can also product fungal biomass for food. I wrote pretty extensively about fermentation techniques in a prior post.
Microbial fertilizer solutions
There are now engineered microbes that reduce the reliance on nitrogen based fertilizer, by allowing nitrogen fixation in crops such as corn and soy (from companies like Pivot Bio). These microbial soil augmentations will transform modern agriculture. There are many other potential applications for biotech in supporting the soil microbiome, including drought and salinity resistance, as well as increasing soil carbon sequestration.
Chemicals: fuels, plastics and polymers
Making chemicals using biology, by fermentation or biocatalysis, will allow us to move away from petrochemical based feedstocks. If we assume a future where use of petroleum based products must trend lower, we need to find new carbon sources and ways to turn them into fuels, plastics, polymers and more. The Polymerist talks about this extensively in his piece about Solugen. There will be an ongoing need for burnable fuels in certain circumstances, and we can aim for carbon neutrality by using bio-based oils. Lowering cost at scale is a particular issue, as these are commodity products.
Biomaterials: wood, fungal biomass
Much of our built world could be made from biological materials. There are companies working on stronger and more efficiently growing trees, as well as increasing lumber’s carbon sequestration ability. Fungal biomass can be used for packaging, insulation, styrofoam alternatives, textiles, and more - we have barely scratched the surface of making new fungal strains with favorable traits.
Environmental remediation & biomining
We already use natural microbes for bioremediation today, in oil spills for example, but as biotech has matured we can now explore the use of engineered microbes to break down a wider range of contaminants. Furthermore, we may be able to use microbes to sequester and aggregate molecules of interest, such as high value metals. There are several efforts underway to engineer microbes to break down electronic waste, while also allowing us to “mine” for useful elements to recycle.
The biggest opportunity of all may be engineering of better plants, for growth efficiency, climate resilient traits, and increased carbon capture. We need to build resilience in plants in particular at germination. There are several strategies for improving plants’ ability to sequester carbon, including growing larger root systems and slowing decomposition. While work is needed on fundamental plant bioengineering, we also need innovation on how we scale their use. What kind of effort would result in the planting of billions of hyper-efficient plants for carbon capture and sequestration? New plants will be the leading edge of “biotech in the wild” to fight climate change.
We need a Drawdown style analysis of the climate impact of biotechnological solutions. There is not a clear picture of how much atmospheric carbon we can remove using these tools, and how to rank them accordingly. We must work on scaling well-characterized biological solutions like fermentation and biomaterials, and invest in fundamental R&D for tomorrow’s solutions, like microbial remediation and new plants.