Menning: Microbes, Mammoths and Climate

Biotech is a critical tool to address climate change — Dartmouth’s research priorities should reflect that.

by Isaiah Menning | 11/14/23 4:30am

A biotechnology breakthrough at Dartmouth was critical in ending the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2014 to 2016, professor emeritus Jason McLellan and his team at the Geisel School of Medicine worked with collaborators to develop a method to stabilize coronavirus spike proteins. The method proved critical to developing the vaccines that have saved millions of lives and prompted the end of the pandemic lockdowns. 

With its stake in the intellectual property behind this process, Dartmouth plans on reinvesting financial returns from the technology into further research. Former College President Phil Hanlon ’77 said that the capital will be invested in research needed “to continue to develop the breakthroughs that make the world a better, more inhabitable place,” according to Dartmouth News. To help build a more habitable future, Dartmouth should invest in cross-disciplinary research that develops biotechnologies for climate mitigation and adaptation. 

Other technologies tend to dominate the climate discussion. Solar, wind, hydrogen, nuclear and carbon capture are particularly popular talking points. I highlighted the importance of carbon capture as a climate tool in an article published just last week. Public policy also undersells biotech as a climate solution. The Inflation Reduction Act — the largest piece of climate legislation in the nation’s history — mentions “solar” 43 times, “wind” 76 times, “hydrogen” 78 times, “nuclear” 27 times and “carbon capture” 30 times. “Biotech” is mentioned four times, all in reference to pharmaceuticals. 

Despite its underrated position in the climate discussion, biotech provides awesome opportunities to address climate problems. Two recent breakthroughs have expanded this potential. First, genetic tools — particularly in CRISPR and similar systems — have given scientists unprecedented abilities to shape organisms’ genetic blueprint. Second, precipitous declines in genetic sequencing costs, combined with developments in artificial intelligence, give biologists access to both massive amounts of data and mechanisms to analyze them. 

Using tools like these, biotech is a pathway to produce clean, cheap energy. For instance, Cemvita — a company I interned for this past summer — is developing engineered microbes to transform carbon emissions into products like biodiesel, biofuel feedstocks and fertilizers. Not reliant on hydrogen or sunlight, the land and electricity inputs of this process are significantly less than crop- or algae-based biofuels. Cemvita recently announced a deal to sell up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel to United Airlines. 

Crucially, these technologies will produce clean energy products that are compatible with existing infrastructure. Since many clean energy systems aren’t purely fossil fuel replacements, clean energy deployment faces major infrastructure challenges: Electrification, building transmission lines and massive mining expansion, to name a few. Deploying microbe-made, carbon-neutral biodiesel compatible with current systems could be the solution. 

Further, using existing infrastructure at depleted oil wells would allow clean hydrogen to be produced within the framework of well-established energy infrastructure. Building microbe systems to make mining more efficient and sustainable will decrease the considerable ecological costs of clean energy needs. These real-world developments underscore the ability of biotech to facilitate a circular economy. The existing abilities of life can be reprogrammed to transform waste streams — whether carbon, depleted oil wells or mining waste — into clean assets, whether those are biodiesel, clean hydrogen or copper.

Biotech can also be deployed to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change by righting ecological wrongs. Branding itself as the “de-extinction company,” Colossal Biosciences has attracted $150 million to bring previously extinct species back from the dead. 

Led by Harvard University biologist George Church, Colossal’s largest ambition is wooly mammoth de-extinction. By editing the genome of the Asian elephant to include mammoth traits, Colossal will bring the edited embryo to term, producing a mammoth-elephant hybrid adapted for cold climates. Then, wild populations can be restored to available habitats in the North American and Eurasian tundra. Building off of science that suggests increasing densities of herbivorous animals in tundra can protect permafrost, Colossal’s mammoths could help prevent major greenhouse gas emissions via permafrost loss.  

This type of work could accelerate efforts to make other imperiled species resilient to climate change, invasive species and habitat loss. Experts are increasingly looking to biotech as a solution to prevent pest-driven loss of native tree species, including the American chestnut and American ash trees native to the forests around campus. Conservation-oriented biotech research at Dartmouth could help build ecological resilience for imperiled species like these native to the Upper Valley. 

Besides new revenue from its spike protein-related intellectual property, Dartmouth is well-positioned to invest in research that makes headway in biotech that advances energy, conservation and beyond. The Irving Institute for Energy and Society has already funded interdisciplinary research on biofuel and soil health led by associate biology professor Caitlin Hicks-Pries and engineering professor Lee Lynd. Irving should explore further partnership opportunities between the Geisel School of Medicine, the Thayer School of Engineering and the biology and chemistry departments to advance biotech-driven energy solutions. 

Additionally, Dartmouth biology faculty and students have advanced American ash research.  Collaboration between ecologists, microbiologists, engineers and conservation biologists could yield biotech solutions to strengthen local American ash trees against anthropogenic threats. Climate-related research opportunities beyond energy and conservation are expansive. Biotech has massive potential in developing climate-resilient crops and in preventing disease, such as by managing mosquito populations. Dartmouth’s research should creatively pursue biotech applications in all its forms. 

From microbes to mammoths, the biological resources now available for biotech use are immense. In collaboration with major players in these industries, Dartmouth should apply its capital and research capabilities to develop these resources to build biotech for a healthy future. 

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.