Engineering biology to mitigate climate change

Image of a plant cell under a microscope.

A recent UN report on climate change warns that cutting emissions alone will almost certainly not be enough and removing carbon from the atmosphere is “unavoidable”. It estimates that as much as 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2050 and 20 billion by 2100 could be required to be removed in order to keep temperatures likely below 2 ˚C.

The verdict is clear: negative emissions technology needs to be drastically and immediately scaled but, given the nascency of the market, that will be no small feat. 

Nature-based solutions for carbon removal, whether it’s reforestation or engineering yeast,  confer a range of key advantages, including self-replication,  infrastructure that likely already exists and the ability to generate complex side products. 

There are, of course, some constraints, including CO2 permanence, trade-offs and measurement, reporting and verification (MRV):

Permanence is a challenge for nature-based solutions: a wildfire or biomass decay will release the carbon right back into the atmosphere. Rather than trying to permanently store every CO2 molecule captured and thinking about total carbon removal volumes as a fixed target, one possible strategy is instead to consider the “net carbon flux” of a project over the next 100 years, which opens up a world of marginal permanence improvements at scale that could prove transformational. 

Any nature-based solution involving planting foliage, whether that’s simple reforestation or genetically modified plants, will require land. In countries like the UK, that will conflict with arable land (and food production) or, ironically, require deforestation to “free up” land for carbon removal.  

Lastly, there is the challenge of measuring, reporting and verifying the carbon drawn down, accounting for fluctuations in growth due to local climatic conditions and the release of some of that CO2. This constraint becomes particularly crucial when considered within the context of a commercial exchange mechanism like carbon credits.

We believe we can overcome these constraints, to develop effective nature-based solutions for carbon removal. Here are some of the approaches that we’re considering:

 

🌱 SOIL CARBON FORMATION

If CO2 is converted to soil carbon, it can be stored for centuries. Rather than industrial conversion; plants or soil microbiota could be engineered to optimise the formation of soil carbon at greater depths, e.g. increasing the lignin content in plants, promoting the production of decay inhibitors, optimising plant-microbe interactions or enhancing the growth of eukaryotic microorganisms in the soil, and if implemented in a specific way, avoid the constraints highlighted above. An additional benefit to these potential approaches is an increase in soil health.

🌊 MARINE PLANT CULTIVATION

Leveraging the biotic pump in the ocean to draw down CO2 e.g by seaweed cultivation has a sequestration potential up to a Gt, with sediments in tidal wetlands, mangrove forests and seagrass meadows lasting for thousands of years. To make business opportunities related to marine plant cultivation viable we need to find ways of improving cultivation, harvesting and post-processing methods. 

🍻 CO2 FERMENTATION

Leveraging the possibility of microorganisms to capture and convert CO2 into highly valuable products seems to be a cornerstone technology for a circular carbon economy. Yet to increase production capacity and decrease cost we need to explore ways to lower the dependency on concentrated, purified CO2 streams and decrease energy demand and scalability of respective bioreactors. 

 

We’re exploring these approaches and creating ventures around them, from scratch. As part of this, we’re recruiting leading scientists and engineers to lead the process. If you have a strong drive to build a company, to make a huge positive impact towards the net zero energy transition, we would like to hear from you. 

You’ll be joining DSV as a Founding Analyst (fixed contract, full-time) and work with us for 9-12 months to further refine the approaches. At the end of the 9-12 month period, you will have helped to design and spin out one or more ventures and will become a full-time Founder of one of them.

Taking up a Founding Analyst (FA) role at DSV differs quite significantly from the entrepreneur in residence (EIR) role in other funds or venture studios. Instead of scouting for existing technologies which might overcome a specific challenge, an FA starts with identifying the areas where there is neglect or repeated failure yet potential solutions exist if considered from a different perspective, mapping the limitations to existing approaches at the specific and macro-level and considering the constraints of the broader ecosystem (capital, expertise, IP, knowledge, competition). You will start to build a company, iteratively determining the optimal solution for the problem.

In terms of skills and backgrounds, with this role, we are looking for deep technical expertise in plant biotechnology, ideally related to genetic engineering of plant growth and root excretion mechanisms. We are equally interested in hearing from people with expertise in microbial ecology, ideally related to soil carbon formation and plant-microorganism interaction.

Additional interests may include ecosystem function, environmental sensing, and regenerative soil management.

More information on the job description can be found here. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

DSV has already done a lot of work in climate:

Deep Science Ventures is a venture creator, combining available scientific knowledge and founder-type scientists into high-impact ventures, to build a future where humanity and the planet thrive. In our focus on Climate, we’re creating ventures to reverse global heating. We believe in long-term strategic thinking and planning - a concerted effort to identify drastic, creative and scalable solutions in which climate change can be reversed. 

We have created several direct-air-capture companies already, including the XPrize winning Mission Zero Technologies, Parallel Carbon and Holy Grail, which have raised a combined £13m and will shortly be deploying technology to begin drawing down carbon from the atmosphere. We have also created soil-health monitoring company PES Technologies and Rhizocore, which is using mycorrhizal fungi to enhance reforestation.

This alone is not enough. We champion these as promising solutions among several complementary approaches. To help solve a challenge as complex as climate change, there is no room for reductive thinking: we need a pool of viable and scalable options working in tandem.

We have recently partnered with the Grantham Foundation and global payments company, Stripe, to develop more negative emissions technology companies, some of which will be based on biotic solutions; leveraging photosynthetic and chemosynthetic pathways of living organisms to sequester CO2.