Save The Trees by Slicing Genes: Gene Editing Trees to their Full Potential

Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash

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

  1. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

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.

  1. Air Quality
Tree System Function Diagram
  • 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.
Earth’s Mass extinction rise in recent years.
  • 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.
Air pollutants and their processes diagram
  • 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.
  • 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.
Tree, soil and precipitation relationship diagram
Deforestation and exploitation of trees

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?

Introducing Envarc!

An organization committed to combating deforestation, by gene editing trees to grow faster, larger and sequester more carbon.

Envarc Logo
Cell, DNA, and gene diagram

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.

  1. Replace a faulty gene with a healthy one
  2. 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.

  1. Recognition
  2. Cleavage
  3. Repair
CRISPR Cas-9 Process Diagram

Why CRISPR?

There are many different methods of gene editing, the primary ones being:

  1. Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs): Increased Recognition Potential
  2. TALENs Gene Editing: Single Nucleotide Resolution
  3. CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing: Genome Editing Revolutionized

So… Why CRISPR?

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

How will we do it?

Our process:

Tissue Culture Diagram
Poplar Tree
Tissue culture procedure diagram
Tissue sample is taken.
Undifferentiated callus forms.
Callus separates and single cells culture. Futher culturing generates new plant.

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.

Successful examples of gene editing in woody species

Next Steps…

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.

Photo by Eyoel Kahssay on Unsplash

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.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my wonderful teammates: Danyelle Veillard, Noorish Rizvi, Manya Hukkoo and Karthi Kanthavel.

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