How Can Synthetic Biology Combat Climate Change?

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First-ever workshop convenes multi-disciplinary group to search for answers

By Liz Sheeley

Carbon farming, a process that helps reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, has been around for about five years, but could become a more successful strategy to combat climate change if it became multi-disciplinary.

Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering and Dean Emeritus of the College of Engineering Charles DeLisi (MSE) recognized this possibility in carbon farming to combat climate change, and how it could be amplified many-fold by exploiting the powerful methods of post-genomic biology, especially the emerging field of synthetic and systems biology.

These emerging fields, DeLisi thought, could be employed to modify plants to convert atmospheric carbon into stable compounds, rather than returning it to the atmosphere, or to create self-fertilizing plants that grow under non-ideal conditions, thereby avoiding food shortages as climate conditions change.

After giving a lecture at BU about climate change, DeLisi found several BU collaborators who were interested in advancing these topics; Professor Daniel Segrè (Biology, Bioinformatics, BME), Tony Janetos, the former director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and DeLisi began talking about developing a workshop to bring together experts from a range of disciplines to discuss these topics.

Now, about two years later, on December 3 and 4, the College of Engineering, along with the graduate program in Bioinformatics and systems biology, hosted the workshop, The Role of Synthetic Biology in Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Reduction. The workshop is supported in part by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

DeLisi was able to bring on two other organizers, Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for Climate Change Programs at Climate Institute, and Aristides Patrinos, chief scientist at the Novim Group to help realize the vision.

“The theme of this workshop is driven by the confluence of two opposing challenges that society faces,” said Dean of the College of Engineering Kenneth R. Lutchen, who opened up the workshop. “The first challenge is population growth, which will continue to occur for another 20-30 years, and the second is in making sure we can establish enough energy for the needs of that population.”

He noted that this workshop is unique in its goal—instead of trying to figure out carbon-free energy sources, it’s working to mitigate and reduce the carbon footprint of delivering energy across the globe.

“The view of the organizers is that there’s no magic bullet to the climate challenge, so we need to lay out and vet all promising approaches,” said DeLisi. “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.”

The two-day workshop was divided into four session: synthetic and systems biology; terrestrial, atmosphere, ocean system; policy panel; and ethical, legal and social issues.

Experts and researchers from academia and industry were able to present their research and participate in discussions about how all of the different fields can work together to find solutions in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the workshop attendees, Stan Wullschleger, director of the Environmental Sciences Division and director of the Climate Change Science Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, gave a presentation titled, “Harnessing Plant Genomics for CO2 Capture and Storage in Soils,” in which he discussed past, sometimes decade-long projects that have studied the ecological effects of increased carbon storage. He pointed out an opportunity to engineer specific genetic pathways in plants that could help make them more resistant to environmental stressors like drought, and enhance carbon dioxide capture and storage.

Engineering major plant pathways is a difficult task that will require plant physiologists like Wullschleger to work with synthetic and systems biologists and engineers to realize those opportunities in enhancing carbon farming.

The workshop attracted an interdisciplinary group of leaders with a stake in the intersection of synthetic biology and greenhouse gas reduction. Among the presenters were George Church of Harvard University, Adam Arkin of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Steve Hamburg of the Environmental Defense Fund, and David Resnik of the National Institutes of Health.  Other participants included Nobel Prize winners Professor Emeritus Sheldon Glashow (Physics, Mathematics) and Richard Roberts of New England Biolabs, and a diverse group of thought leaders in an array of fields.

“This was the first meeting between two groups—synthetic biologists and climate scientists—who virtually never talk to one another, so it was a real learning experience for all of us—and a potentially important one,” said DeLisi. “Now the challenge is to make sure we continue to work on these problems together, and a group of us are now planning next steps based on what we learned.”