Save The Trees by Slicing Genes: Gene Editing Trees to their Full Potential
Forests are of critical importance ecologically and economically. They cover more than one-quarter of the Earth’s land surface area, harbor the majority of the terrestrial biodiversity, exert strong control on biosphere carbon sinks, have a pivotal role in climate regulation, and are widely acknowledged as being principle ecosystem service provider.
Yet the mass destruction of trees — deforestation — continues, sacrificing the long-term benefits of standing trees for short-term gain. Forests still cover about 30 percent of the world’s land area, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Deforestation or forest clearance is the removal of a forest or stand of trees from land that is then converted to non-forest use. Mass cutting down trees. It happens for a couple of reasons: logging, agriculture, natural disasters, urbanization and mining.
Why does this problem matter?
Our world relies on trees more than you think. Trees are the first line of defense against floods and landslides, they contain the necessary materials for almost a quarter of modern medicine, and reduce stress and anxiety among individuals. Besides that, primarily trees are…
- Natural filters
- Trees are known as ‘carbon sinks’ because of their ability to store and sequester carbon. Filtering our air day and night, getting rid of 7% — 24% of particulate matter in our atmosphere.
2. Temperature Regulators
- Trees lower air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Trees have a localised cooling effect. They provide shade that maintains soil temperatures and, as the darkest thing in the landscape, they absorb heat rather than reflect it. In the process of evapotranspiration, they also channel energy from solar radiation into converting liquid water into vapour. With all of those cooling services lost, most places where trees formerly stood would immediately become warmer. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F (11–25°C) cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials.
3. Soil and water conservators
- The guardian angles of soil and water. Trees reduce soil erosion, which prevents sediment from entering storm drains and streams. As a result trapping debris and contaminants. Trees improve water quality and protect the soil.
4. Wildlife habitats
- Forests are home to 80% of all animal and plant species. Overall species richness was 50 to 100% higher in areas with scattered trees than in open areas.
“Even a single, isolated tree in an open area can act as a biodiversity ‘magnet,’ attracting and providing resources for many animals and plants,” — Jayme Prevedello, an ecologist at Rio de Janeiro State University in Brazil “Therefore, losing even individual trees can severely impact biodiversity locally.”
It’s no question that without trees, it would be the end of the world.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest are lost each year.
That’s 15.3 billion trees, chopped down annually globally!
If the current rate of deforestation continues, the world’s rain forests will vanish within 100 years, and we will have no trees in around 200 years.
What does this mean for us?
Well, It means no more note taking, no more thank you cards. You will never be able to put pen to paper ever again, because there is no paper. However, let’s take a look at the bigger picture.
- Air Quality
- Trees play a huge part in the oxygen in our atmosphere. One tree produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen each year, that means two trees can produce enough oxygen for a family of four. Without many trees, you will have trouble breathing as the air supply diminishes.
- All animals have some sort of dependence and relationship with our trees. The world is losing 137 species of plants, animals and insects every day to deforestation. That’s 50,000 species each year. As a result 30% of all species are currently under threat of extinction due to deforestation. In short, all animals will die off, if trees were to be wiped from the earth.
3. Carbon and Air pollution
- There are many harmful chemicals and pollutants (The U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency has classified 187 pollutants as hazardous) floating around in the very air we breathe. Trees absorb these harmful compounds providing cleaner and fresher air. Ultimately preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths due to air pollution. One acre of trees absorbs roughly 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide every year. Without this absorption climate change would get out of control. There will be an exponential increase in reduced rainfall and chronic droughts around the world, due to the water that is cycled through the process of photosynthesis in trees. This causes huge water shortages, but when it does rain it won’t be pretty.
4. Natural Disasters
- When rain did come, flooding would be disastrous. Massive erosion would impact oceans, smothering coral reefs and other marine habitats. Islands stripped of trees would lose their barriers to the ocean, and many would be washed away.
“Removing trees means losing huge amounts of land to the ocean,” says Thomas Crowther, a global systems ecologist at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and lead author of the 2015 Nature study.
5. Food Supply and Soil
- All food production will be heavily affected. Trees have a very strong unique relationship with soil. Many chemicals from precipitation get absorbed by trees that would’ve gone into our soil. When they do, it renders our soil useless. Our soil will become degraded and full of harmful chemicals. Say goodbye to vegetation and agriculture.
Our world would be a desolate wasteland. Crops cannot grow, even if they did, it would be far too toxic to consume. Most of the wildlife will be gone. If the air won’t kill humans, the food shortage will. All of this will happen in no less than 200 years at the rate we are going. Who cares about anything if we are going to be dead.
Currently deforestation poses a huge threat to humanity. Our attempts at this problem consists of consuming less, avoiding single-use packaging, eating sustainable food, and choosing recycled or responsibly-produced wood products. However it’s not enough and largely ineffective. The reasoning, is it’s incredibly difficult to attack the root problem. Regulating deforestation is nearly impossible due to many major forests located in the territories of some countries. Which refuses to stop marketing them, because the sale of logs and wood boards is a big business and therefore, they are not willing to abandon it.
What if we didn’t need approval from greedy nations to combat deforestation? What if we could just plant more trees? What if we trees had more potential? What if we could plant more trees that could grow faster, bigger and better?
An organization committed to combating deforestation, by gene editing trees to grow faster, larger and sequester more carbon.
Gene editing, short for Genome editing, is the manipulation of the genetic material of a living organism by deleting, replacing, or inserting a DNA sequence.
The purpose of gene editing is to modify genes of living organisms to improve the function of that organism. For instance, gene editing could be used with the aim of improving a crop or farmed animal or correcting a genetic disorder.
Every living thing is made out of cells, and each cell contains Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), a molecule that contains the biological instructions that make each species unique. A gene is a long coiled up DNA molecule.
In the context of people, genes can influence features like eye color, height and basically everything about us. DNA is inherited from our parents. We have a combination of 2 sets of genes. Brought together and shuffled to create a new set of instructions. These instructions are reshuffled in every new generation. However, sometimes these instructions can carry errors. Those errors can create problems. Faulty genes can cause serious health conditions and illnesses.
How does gene editing work?
Gene editing works by identifying pieces of DNA, then cutting pieces of that DNA. One way of doing this is using CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat) a genetic engineering tool. It pin points the precise DNA sequence within the gene to be alter. Then an enzyme called Cas9 snips through the DNA, changing it or allowing it to be replaced by another stretch of DNA.
Gene Editing can do 2 things:
- Replace a faulty gene with a healthy one
- Change a gene to make it behave differently
Think of gene editing as photoshop but for organic matter. Photoshop lets you make zoomed-in changes, down to the level of a single pixel — just as CRISPR can make changes at the level of the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs that make up the genetic code.
The mechanism of CRISPR/Cas-9 genome editing contains three steps: recognition, cleavage, and repair.
The designed sgRNA (single-guide RNA is used to direct the Cas9 protein to bind and cleave a particular DNA sequence for genome editing) recognizes the target sequence in the gene of interest.
Then the Cas-9 nuclease makes double-stranded breaks (a crucial step in inducing targeted alterations) at the site, then the double-stranded break is repaired by either non-homologous (pathway that repairs double-strand breaks in DNA) end joining or homology-directed repair cellular mechanisms (a naturally occurring nucleic acid repair system).
There are many different methods of gene editing, the primary ones being:
- Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs): Increased Recognition Potential
- TALENs Gene Editing: Single Nucleotide Resolution
- CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing: Genome Editing Revolutionized
So… Why CRISPR?
Despite its great promise as a genome-editing system, CRISPR/Cas-9 technology has been hampered by several challenges that should be addressed during the process of application. Immunogenicity, lack of a safe and efficient delivery system to the target, off-target effect, and ethical issues have been the major barriers to extend the technology in clinical applications.
However, CRISPR is faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more efficient than other genome editing methods. Gene editing has been used for combating disease, for instance Cancer research. Another well known example would be GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Back to Envarc, where we produce trees to grow faster, larger and sequester more carbon.
How will we do it?
We will be adopting a method known as tissue culture. A method of biological research in which fragments of tissue from an animal or plant are transferred to an artificial environment in which they can continue to survive and function.
Majority of gene-edited plants are produced through tissue culture. Cauliflower, rose cuttings, African violet leaves and carnation stems will all easily produce clones (exact genetic copies) through tissue culture.
The fastest growing trees are Willow Trees and Poplar Trees, Poplar Trees have been used and shown to be an incredible suitable candidate for producing ‘hybrid trees’. Therefore Envarc will focus on using Poplar Trees for our project, but as our product develops we can expand to a wider range of tree species to target different areas and promote diversity.
Envarc’s gene editing procedure will follow the tissue culture process. There are 3 stages, the first is an initiation, the second is multiplication and the third will be root formation and development.
STAGE 1: Initiation phase
The initiation phase is the first phase of tissue culture. Here, the tissue of interest is obtained and introduced and sterilized in order to prevent any microorganism from negatively affecting the process. It is during this stage that the tissue is initiated into culture.
STAGE 2: Multiplication stage
The multiplication phase is the second step of tissue culture where the in vitro plant material is redivided and then introduced into the medium. Here, the medium is composed of appropriate components for growth including regulators and nutrients. These are responsible for the proliferation of the tissue and the production of multiple shoots.
STAGE 3: Root formation
It is at this phase that roots are formed. Hormones are required in order to induce rooting, and consequently complete plantlets. Here is when we use CRISPR/Cas-9 to edit the genes, called PXY and CLE that control the growth of a tree trunk. These genes are chosen because when overexpressed, it makes them more active than in their normal state. The trees where these genes were altered grew twice as fast as normal and were taller, wider and had more leaves. This is the goal of Envarc.
Why is this a feasible to achieve in the next 5–10 years?
The CRISPR/Cas9 system has been used to develop disease resistant fruit trees with promising results already, especially with woody species. To date, the greatest progress in woody species has been made with poplar, the first stably transformed tree to be genome-edited by CRISPR with high efficiency. Due to the economic and ecological importance of forest trees, modern breeding and genetic manipulation of forest trees have become increasingly prevalent.
After Envarc establishes successful gene edited hybrid poplar saplings that can grow at an extreme rate, grow larger than the average trees, and sequester more carbon with wider and more leaves, the planting begins. Envarc will seek partners to work with, such as Droneseed (Droneseed is an organization working towards rapid reforestation using drones. Which is six times faster than hand planting seedlings.) to support Envarc’s mission.
Envarc will then turn to social media, advertising and running campaigns about our product and mission. With the rise of interest and concerns for forest and plant health, it is likely Envarc will attract much interest and attention. We will seek to pitch to investors and spread the word about Envarc. Having experts and social media influencers validate our product will bring Envarc to another level. This will be our main source of funding. Envarc will also be a prominent player in communal activities, involving neighborhoods and schools to take part in our mission.
What changes will Envarc bring? How will we solve our problem?
Envarc will provide a long term solution to deforestation by promoting the easiest and cost effect solution for reforestation. The mass planting of Envarc’s hybrid trees will tackle more carbon in our atmosphere more effectively. Helping curb carbon emissions and restoring many forests.
I would like to thank my wonderful teammates: Danyelle Veillard, Noorish Rizvi, Manya Hukkoo and Karthi Kanthavel.
Thank you so much for reading our article, Save The Trees by Slicing Genes: Gene Editing Trees to their Full Potential, and learning about Gene editing and deforestation!