Bacteria may have an important role to play in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A group of researchers at the University of Alberta are genetically engineering non-hazardous bacteria that consume methane and turn it into fuel.
One of the most harmful effects of the changing climate is what is happening to coral reefs. Warmer ocean temperatures and acidification are causing widespread bleaching of coral. Stressed corals expel the algae living in their tissue, turning the corals white and robbing them of nutrients. When bleaching events persist, the corals starve and die. Reefs everywhere have been experiencing mass bleaching events in recent years with over 70% of the coral reefs around the world being damaged.
When biofuels are made, tough plant material is left over as waste. The material is lignin, which is a main component of plant cell walls that gives plants their structural integrity. Lignin is made up of many valuable compounds, but taking it apart to extract them is very difficult.
Genetic engineering, or equivalently synthetic biology, is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise involved in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, biofuels and, of course, agriculture. In these fields, it is already the source of a great deal of controversy. But there is increasing interest in using synthetic biology (or synbio) technology as a tool for protecting the natural world, which is a prospect some find tantalizing and others find absolutely terrifying.