New bacteria provides hope to climate change battle

By Shannon Worsey

By 2050, the World is expected to achieve net zero carbon emissions in order to prevent more than a 2°C rise in global temperatures. Scientists of all disciplines are now coming together and conducting research in new areas of science to tackle the world’s greatest problem – the climate crisis. This week researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have published results suggesting a possible solution to the problem in the shape of a new synthetic life-form. 


In recent months, the institute has produced a new Escherichia coli (E. coli) strain that are able to consume carbon dioxide. Instead of its usual diet of organic carbon, the bacteria have been genetically edited to consume CO2 in a brand-new way; changing the diet of bacteria by removing their dependence on sugar and offering CO2 as an alternative proposes a potential new approach to tackle carbon emissions. 


Senior author Ron Milo claims that “converting the carbon source of E. coli, the workhorse of biotechnology, from organic carbon into CO2 is a major step” within synthetic biology and the climate crisis problem. The researchers engineered the new bacteria to produce non-native enzymes involved in carbon fixation pathways, along with several key survival-related genes, to produce the successful colonies of bacteria. 


This study has a severe limitation though; the bacterial method used currently releases more CO2 than is fixed during consumption due to the non-renewable energy used in production. Collaboration of all areas within science will be necessary for the bacteria to have a practical use. 


One major drawback all scientists must consider when trying to solve the climate crisis is: will this new technique work on a mass scale? There has not been an approach that has tackled this problem yet, with other technological advances in carbon storing building materials and food security projects facing similar challenges. 


Another carbon capture project, BECCS, has this year been piloted in the UK to determine the ability to produce new negative emissions technologies on a larger scale. However with a price tag of £400,000 per station plant, the worldwide ambitions of the project appear out of reach for many countries. International co-operation will be required to solve the climate crisis and it cannot be expected of smaller countries to carry the financial burden of decarbonisation alone. 


Undeniably, the hard work and research carried out in studies such as these are at the forefront of scientific achievements. Such important advancements in scientific fields, such as synthetic biology, are paving the way for radical new approaches to the climate crisis. 


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