The five: genetic fixes for the climate crisis

Scientists are discovering innovative ways to help the natural world adapt to environmental change

A cure for coral

Last week, scientists from the University of Texas identified a gene in a species of coral that is activated when coral becomes heat stressed. Warmer waters as a result of climate change often cause stressed coral to expel the algae they depend upon for energy in a process known as bleaching, leading to mass coral decline. Scientists believe this gene to be present in many coral species and hope to use it to detect stressed coral before bleaching occurs, allowing them to prioritise conservation of these species.

Climate-friendly cows

Researchers have discovered that cows can be selectively bred to be more environmentally friendly. The amount of methane produced by microorganisms in the cow’s first stomach – the rumen – is influenced by the cow’s genetic makeup. Prof John Williams from the University of Adelaide, says this means we can select for cattle that permanently produce less methane, which is a major contributor to global heating.

Herd of cows in California
The amount of methane a cow produces is influenced by its genetic makeup. Photograph: David Paul Morris/AFP/Getty Images

CO2-smart plants

Scientists from the Salk Institute in California are developing an “ideal plant” that could help slow global heating. This super plant is designed to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and deposit it in roots as a carbon-rich, cork-like substance called suberin. Suberin is resistant to decomposition, allowing efficient, long-term storage of CO2 underground.

Reinforced rice

A team from the University of Copenhagen identified a gene last year that makes rice resistant to floods and droughts, causing the leaf surface to become coated in wax crystals, repelling water. During a drought this prevents water loss by evaporation; in a flood, the waxy surface retains a thin layer of gas for a few days, preventing the rice from drowning. Scientists aim to manipulate the gene to increase long-term flood tolerance.

Bacteria for biofuel

In 2018, scientists from the National University of Singapore discovered a strain of bacteria capable of converting plant matter into a biobutanol: a biofuel that can be used in car engines instead of petrol. Researchers are now genetically engineering the bacteria to make biobutanol conversion more efficient.

Dani Ellenby

The GuardianTramp

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