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Living Carbon gets millions to develop “supertrees” that fight global warming

Updated: Feb 1

A pine tree forest overlooks a small lake and a silhouette of mountains against a yellow sun, low in the sky
Image credit: Unsplash

Living Carbon is one of the only startups out there enhancing plants for carbon capture and storage. Naturally, trees have an awesome carbon capture system, lightyears ahead of what humans are doing with technology.

However, as more CO2 is pumped into the air, scientists have been looking for ways to enhance the natural sequestration ability of trees and other natural carbon-capture resources.

InPlanet is targeting rocks, Brilliant Planet is targeting algae, and other startups and scientists are recognizing the potential of oceans, deserts, soil, and plants like seaweed. In fact, several Science Engine projects are researching ways to scale nature’s carbon impact.

Other startups like Terraformation are turning toward reforestation and ecosystem preservation to scale forests’ carbon capture ability, but Living Carbon has taken this approach a step further by both restoring ecosystems and biodiversity, while enhancing the ability of photosynthetic organisms to draw down and store carbon from the atmosphere.

The startup’s first product is a photosynthesis-enhanced hybrid poplar tree that grows faster than control seedlings and is resilient in high temperatures.

Earlier this year, Living Carbon released a whitepaper demonstrating the efficacy of such an enhancement, and so far the company says the results are encouraging. After studying multiple generations of the propagated tree seedlings, Living Carbon was able to increase the production of above-ground biomass by 53% by enhancing a specific genetic trait.

Trees store carbon as biomass, and effectively store it for centuries. By enhancing the biomass potential Living Carbon created a tree with the potential to capture 27% more carbon, the company says, and with “responsible biotechnology” they could play a role in stabilizing the climate.

Living Carbon’s Series A round was led by Temasek with participation from Lowercarbon Capital, Toyota Ventures, Felicis Ventures, and other strategic angels. LowerCarbon Capital backs “kickass” companies aiming to slash carbon emissions, and according to their founder Chriss Sacca, Living Carbon’s “supertrees” “mean more timber, forests, and other carbon-storing products sooner and cheaper.”

According to the startup, they hope to provide companies with an easy way to reduce their carbon emissions using excess or marginal land, augmenting traditional forests, and creating new superforests on land that would otherwise be unproductive.

Currently, Living Carbon has projects in Zion Grove, Pennsylvania and Reidsville, Georgia. With two projects in Reidsville, one project increases the volume of carbon stored in durable wood products, managing timberland as a carbon sink, and the other plants their Photosynthesis-Enhanced Hybrid Poplar and other species on family-owned active timberland.

In Pennsylvania, the company is planting and studying seedlings while working to reestablish original natural forest species composition and remove excess metals from the soil, effectively restoring the region’s degraded mineland.

With new funding, the startup hopes to expand its team and its work on bio-engineering. In addition to its work on photosynthesis enhancement, Living Carbon is currently conducting studies to develop a trait that enables trees to accumulate higher levels of metals in their roots.

According to the company, this enhanced trait would naturally slow decay to increase the duration of carbon storage, produce more durable wood products, and remediate toxic soils. This would make Living Carbon’s trees the only trees capable of growing on degraded land.

On top of all that, Living Carbon is working with the Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, and McKinsey Sustainability mega-venture fund Frontier Climate to engineer durable biopolymers which sequester carbon for millennia.

The startup launched in 2019 with just 600 trees. This year they hope to plant 4 million more. How? In addition to their own planting, between 2023 and 2024, Living Carbon will supply 4-5 million seedlings throughout the U.S. These seedlings will be available for companies to purchase to reduce their carbon footprint alongside Living Carbon’s carbon quantification and monitoring.

“The voluntary carbon credit market is on track to exceed $50 billion by 2030, but the momentum will only be sustained by the near-term introduction of credits that are transparent, cost-effective, and produced in high volumes,” Lisa Coca, Climate Fund Partner at Toyota Ventures said in a statement. *Artic

“Living Carbon’s synthetic biology platform has the potential to fill the gap between supply and demand by leveraging the powerful combination of proven nature-based solutions as a carbon sink and genetic engineering to deliver high-quality credits to the market. And, most importantly, to do so on a timeline that will supply credits in scale within the next three to five years.”

*Article has been edited to clarify the number of trees Living Carbon has planted.

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