Our Learnings from Bringing the First Climate-Smart Seedlings to US Markets

May 24, 2023

Earlier this year, we announced the successful large-scale planting of our climate-smart seedlings. We have started developing mixed-species forest carbon projects and planted around 156,000 seedlings of various species in Georgia. We planted an additional 31,000 seedlings on abandoned mineland in Ohio last week. Together, these sites included around 8,900 photosynthesis-enhanced hybrid poplar trees. 

It was a long journey to get here, from our humble first plant transformation experiments through the learning experiences of navigating the USDA’s plant regulatory process, our first field trial in Oregon, a successful Series A fundraise, and developing our first carbon projects. 

One of our core principles has always been to be transparent about what we are doing and how. We knew that as a young biotech company, we had to be prepared for the same standard of scrutiny and rigor that is applied throughout the scientific community. We waited several years to launch publicly until after we had our greenhouse results showing the efficacy of the photosynthesis-enhanced trees. We also self-published our results as a preprint before going through the peer review process, so anyone who wanted to see our data would have access to it. 

At the same time, in order to move with the speed required by the climate crisis, we knew we needed to gather data and start deploying our trees in parallel. Working on traditional timelines and taking each step one at a time - for 10 or 15 years - would leave us facing a very different world by the time we were ready to start planting. Planting at a larger scale allows us to learn from large amounts of real-world data and improve our trait and forest management.

It has been a while since we shared our experiences with a wider audience, and we have learned a lot in that time. The carbon markets are evolving, and we are evolving; this is the natural behavior of ecosystems. We wanted to share a detailed account of our journey - the challenges, learnings, and successes - because we’ve been influenced by many broader trends in genetic engineering, carbon removal, and the future of nature-based carbon removal solutions.

Grounded in CO2 Removal

Leaving OpenAI to start a climate biotech company in 2019 was the biggest risk of my life. I wanted to apply the lessons I learned about building a world-class R&D team to create a new kind of synthetic biology company oriented toward solving another challenge that will determine the trajectory of human advancement: the climate crisis. To that end, we needed to focus on both frontier research and commercial-scale deployment of carbon removal. This was going to be difficult because the timelines involved in biology research and speed to scale are not always aligned; academic research timelines are generally not the same as those needed for rapid carbon drawdown.

We need at least 1,000 companies with a goal to remove one gigaton of carbon (assuming a 10% success rate) to try to achieve this scale within the next thirty years. This means that for Living Carbon to have a chance at being one of those companies, we needed to work in parallel to demonstrate the scientific process and commercial-scale deployment - or else risk being successful but too late.

R&D First

We are an R&D-first organization. Our goal was to learn from the many research efforts focused on photosynthesis enhancement in crops and see if a similar trait would work in trees. We also knew that, in the US, no biotech tree had been commercially planted before. Previous efforts had focused on increasing timber yield or making trees a better source of feedstock for biofuel, which became less popular after the price of oil dropped starting in 2014. Our frame of genetic engineering was different from previous efforts. Our goal was climate impact rather than trying to make a plant resistant to herbicides or pesticides. 15% of all plants already use an enhanced form of photosynthesis (C4 photosynthesis), and our goal was to enable commonly planted trees with high carbon drawdown potential to be able to undergo photosynthesis with similar efficacy.

We got to work trying to develop a proof of concept photosynthesis-enhanced hybrid poplar. We knew we had to move faster than traditional biotech companies that take five to seven years to bring a biotech plant to market. While we built out our lab capacity, another lab at UC-Riverside worked alongside us to transform poplar with the photosynthesis-enhancement trait. To learn more about our approach to increasing photosynthetic efficiency in trees and what we actually do to the trees, read our FAQ and blog post: Photosynthesis Enhanced Trees Grow Faster and Capture More Carbon.

Living Carbon's first plantlets in tissue culture in 2020.

During that time, we stayed in stealth mode to focus on de-risking the technology. Our goal was to launch when we had achieved proof of concept and received USDA confirmation that we were not regulated like herbicide-resistant crops. People have a very different reaction when you show someone a climate-smart tree that is growing faster than the control, compared to publicly stating in advance that this is what you hope to achieve. We made this choice to build credibility for our work.

In Q1 of 2021, we began to see evidence that the photosynthesis-enhancement trait was performing as expected. From understanding the transportation of CO2 from stomata to chloroplasts, to growing our photosynthesis-enhanced trees until they are 9 feet tall and harvesting all of the biomass for analysis, the R&D team completed multiple sets of triplicate experiments before bringing our trees to the field (I am simplifying here, please read our peer-reviewed paper or blog post to better understand of some of the publicly available research).

To the Soil and Beyond

In July 2021, we planted our first photosynthesis-enhanced seedlings in the field in Oregon! This was the culmination of three years of R&D work and the beginning of many more years of field analysis and agronomy. Trait performance in the greenhouse does not mean trait efficacy in the field, so we knew the hard part had just started.

Genetics is only one factor that determines the overall growth and survivability of a tree. Location, site prep, forest management, soil health, and irrigation are all factors that affect the growth rate of trees. Genetics can shine when those other factors are properly designed and managed. We knew we had a lot to learn about how to plant these seedlings, so beginning in Fall 2021, we planted non-enhanced hybrid poplar alongside other types of seedlings in Georgia, Appalachia, and California to learn how we can support these trees and the ecosystems in which we plant them. We also sent our seedlings to commercial nurseries to test out different methods of propagation. This ensured that when we sent the climate-smart seedlings, the nurseries would be prepped and we would have a working protocol to know how to take care of them.

Local planting crews working alongside the Living Carbon team for site prep and planting of bottomland hardwood sites in Feb 2023

By leaning on expertise from local foresters in Georgia and Pennsylvania, we learned how to plant our trees with a high degree of survivability. In some sites that only had a 10% survivability for reforestation, we were able to achieve 98% survivability over 24 months. We learned a lot from these field and nursery tests. It was important for us to test each portion of our process with our non-enhanced seedlings to ensure that when we were inventory constrained on seedlings in the first few years of production, we would not lose seedlings at each stage of the process. 

Promising Progress

Data from the OSU field trial supports the performance we are seeing at our other field planting sites. Based on OSU’s preliminary independent analysis, there has been a significant increase in height and stem diameter for photosynthesis-enhanced trees compared to control trees. 

We have also found a statistically significant tendency for the enhanced trees to have improved stomatal behavior (more conductance) when put under drought stress compared to control trees. While this is not enough evidence to say these trees will grow well in all field conditions, we are working to plant large pilot plots for further analysis of how our trees grow in all field conditions and work our way up to our goal of 4 million trees planted in the ground by the end of next year. We are fortunate to be in a position to have regulatory clearance and funding to expand these plantings to larger parcels of land.

Commercial Hypotheses and Iteration 

When building a product in the biotech and hard science space, companies have to deal with two unique challenges: (1) long product development cycles and (2) minimal iteration based on customer feedback. Hard science companies often commit to their first product before having an ample understanding of what customers want and what the market will accept. Unlike software companies, you do not get many product iteration cycles with trees. This is why Living Carbon’s photosynthesis-enhancement trait is not completely novel from a scientific perspective but rather rooted in decades of foundational work done in crop plants. We needed to know that a trait had demonstrated some efficacy before incorporating it into trees because we knew we would only get a few iterations to demonstrate efficacy.

Propagating mother plants for our plantings in Georgia and Ohio with our commercial nursery partners.

When we decided to work on photosynthesis-enhancement in trees, we knew our work would bring more attention to the role of synthetic biology in climate adaptation and carbon removal. That was part of the reason why we took this approach. We hoped to demonstrate that biotech can assist in removing a meaningful amount of carbon today, not in 10-20 years. Unlike engineered solutions, biology has the ability to scale itself with low energy costs (meiosis is the best!).

Carbon markets have evolved quickly since Living Carbon was founded ,and we have adapted our understanding of where we fit within them. We had always focused on monetizing the carbon to ensure that the trees are used for carbon removal, despite many people wanting to buy the trees. We understand that companies are not just looking to just buy credits, many are developing an overall decarbonization strategy that focuses on emissions reductions first. With that in mind, we are excited to now also offer our seedlings as part of an emissions reduction strategy for companies with land-based emissions through carbon insetting projects

One of the most common misconceptions around our work is that because we developed a photosynthesis-enhanced hybrid poplar, our plantings are monocultures of enhanced poplar. On the contrary, we prioritize biodiversity and the longevity of ecosystems in our projects and only plant mixed-stand forests with a wide variety of native species alongside our enhanced seedlings. We included a total of 12 species in our plantings in Georgia. Planting fast-growing trees alongside native species allows for canopy cover to be established and prevents encroachment of invasive species, which are commonly seen on abandoned mine land projects. Additionally, intentionally mixing photosynthesis-enhanced trees with native trees alongside at least one mast (nut) producing species for feeding birds and other forest animals results in greater forest restoration over time. 

The Challenges with Carbon Projects

Currently, there is overwhelmingly more demand than supply for high-quality carbon credits, and the carbon offset market is on track to exceed $50 billion by 2030. Conventional forest carbon projects most commonly use one of two methods: (1) preservation of existing natural carbon sinks, such as avoided deforestation, or (2) improved forest management (IFM), such as extending harvest rotations on managed timberland. It is hard to prove the counterfactual scenarios associated with avoided deforestation, leading to some criticism of these solutions. IFM projects are more verifiable, in part due to advances in remote sensing.

Afforestation, reforestation, and revegetation (ARR) projects are comparatively less common, partially because the project economics are less favorable. Only 21 afforestation and reforestation carbon projects have been developed in North America across both voluntary and compliance markets. To put it simply, if it were profitable to reforest land using existing incentive structures and tree varieties on the market, landowners would have done so already without carbon project financing. However, transparency is less of an issue with these projects since additionality (the amount of carbon captured over the baseline use of the land) is more easily measured as the trees grow on a non-forested baseline.

We currently have one IFM project but have since learned through bringing the first seedlings to market that our highest-priority focus for planting should be on marginal lands as the carbon benefit is highly additional. Marginal lands can often benefit the most from faster-growing trees due to poor soil quality and a history of ineffective forest regeneration. As the carbon markets grow more sophisticated, buyers are increasingly willing to pay more for higher-quality credits with clear additionality, transparency, and co-benefits for ecosystems and communities.

ARR projects are now our focus on the carbon project development side of the business, yet the historical trends of ARR projects in North America are quite bleak. Historically, only 21 ARR projects have been developed in the US across both the compliance and voluntary carbon markets. This is multiple orders of magnitude off from where we need to be for nature-based solutions to remove up to five gigatons of CO2 equivalent, as outlined by the IPCC. When the US is one of the largest GHG emitters in the world, we shouldn’t outsource carbon removal solutions - we should focus on restoring land we have degraded through fossil fuel extraction, maximizing their value as carbon sinks while revitalizing surrounding communities. In the state of Pennsylvania alone, there are up to 300,000 acres of degraded mine land that can be reforested if the incentives and economics align for these projects. That is the challenge Living Carbon intends to take on in our next phase of growth.

Aerial image of Living Carbon planting site in Georgia.

In order to do so, we must take on one of the most difficult challenges we face: scaling commercial projects and collecting rigorous data on the trees’ performance in parallel. We carefully model and measure the amount of carbon projected to be sequestered and is actually sequestered at our sites. Before conducting any planting, we do a site assessment and model the projected carbon captured per acre. We are conservative in modeling carbon yields from our projects and do not assume the trees will perform at the same level of maximum increase in biomass we have observed (although it’s possible that they will, or even exceed it). We do assume, based on our results, that they will sequester more carbon than non-enhanced trees, which improves the additionality of the projects.

Based on these projections, we make pre-purchases of the carbon credits available to buyers. We have committed purchasers of credits projected to be generated by the trees planted in Georgia this planting season and next. Buyers are aware of the timeline for tree planting and credit generation, and as with many other pre-purchase structures, they do not pay the full amount up front. 

This model — getting forward commitments for tons that will be removed in the future —is standard practice for carbon removal and renewable energy companies. All of the carbon committed in forwarded purchases are verified after the carbon has been removed (ex-post). This is analogous to the role of power purchase agreements in obtaining project financing for solar, wind, and other renewables. 

As with many forms of frontier carbon removal - and with climate-related projects in general - there is some degree of delivery risk. Working with nature and predicting its behavior is not easy, whether it involves predicting the wind, storms, or the growth rate of trees. We sometimes have to revise our carbon projections for accuracy even after the project has been planned; for example, in order to comply with a technicality to get our Georgia project verified by the American Carbon Registry (ACR), we ended up revising the percentage of photosynthesis-enhanced hybrid poplar planted to 5%. This led to slightly revised carbon projections, but high-quality carbon removal is still on track to be delivered to buyers.

From our humble origins as a team of three in a lab to our first large-scale commercial deployment, we are grateful to the investors, buyers, and partners who made it possible for us to move at the pace the climate crisis requires. The road has not been perfect, and the journey ahead involves the same uncertainty that faces every startup. This reflection is intended to openly share what our experience has been so far and to invite insight and commentary from others. We are optimistic that we will follow in the footsteps of history’s greatest examples of massive carbon drawdown through the power of plants (for more detail, see our Deep Time Series).

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