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Ricard Solé: how to modify the climate to save the biosphere

Ricard Solé: how to modify the climate to save the biosphere

The scientist Ricard Solé is proposing to create synthetic bacteria capable of changing the atmosphere, so that the Earth becomes more resistant to climate change.

Among the different suggestions for how to colonise Mars, there is one that has inspired some Spanish scientists to save the Earth from the threats of climate change. This is the terraformation project, put forward by NASA’s Planetary Science Division, which incorporates various strategies to modify the climate of the red planet and make it habitable.

The Complex Systems Laboratory of the Catalan Institute of Advanced Research and Studies (ICREA), has focussed on one of these ideas in order to apply it to Earth: soil transformation thanks to genetically modified bacteria.

The ICREA researcher, professor at the Pompeu Fabra University and member of the Santa Fe Institute (New Mexico) Ricard Solé is one of those heading up this research, and he poses the following question: "To what extent can human beings reinvent the ecosystem to ensure the future of our youngest generations?” These synthetic organisms may be capable of saving the biosphere by modifying the temperature of the planet and preventing the soil from continuing to degrade.

For Solé, "coping with climate change is a huge challenge, and although international pacts, such as the Paris Agreement, and other scientific actions such as geoengineering are working on it, it is not enough”. The researcher asserts that we must look for more alternatives: "We are the first to put forward the idea of terraformation to stop the temperature from continuing to rise".

What is certain is that, although global warming has increased in recent years, there is still time to put measures in place. It is essential to act before a point of no return is reached.

Given the current state of climate change, how does your proposal to bioengineer the planet work?

The root of all the problems is that we are releasing a huge quantity of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This means that the temperature of the Earth is increasing. The limit has been established as two degrees, and now we are approaching a degree and a half.

We are designing genetically modified bacteria with the aim of introducing them in the future into degraded ecosystems to prevent them from collapsing, to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases, and to eliminate contaminating substances from different habitats. They could be introduced at a national or regional level. Essentially, we could improve the soil of a semi-desert system.

What do you propose to improve these environments?

One of the main problems facing these places is that they barely retain water in the soil.  In order to solve this, we are designing genetically modified bacteria that could be introduced into the soil and could create a molecule capable of storing more moisture. We could also modify species that are already present so that they improve soil quality.

A kind of cooperation between bacteria and plants would be established. A change like this would be enough to favour plants having more resistance and contributing to the soil being richer and more diverse. This would be enough, as a minimum, to distance ourselves from the point of collapse.

Would it be possible to recuperate an ecosystem that is already completely degraded?

It would be very difficult. It is highly complicated to go into a desert state and return it to its previous state. It’s as though you were saying that you’ve destroyed a house and you’re trying to rebuild it with the ruins. For instance, 5,500 years ago the Sahara was green. In less than a century it deteriorated and now it can no longer return to its initial state.

With semi-desert systems we are still in time to make them return to a state of equilibrium. It is critical to act on these places, given that they constitute almost 40% of the planet’s surface, and a similar percentage of the global population lives in them.

These bacteria could make small changes to an ecosystem so that it improves, but would they also be capable of completely changing an environment?

In principle, the changes don’t have to be drastic. The microorganisms could give rise to an ecosystem that is practically the same, but with a little more vegetation. This doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be possible to turn an ecosystem on its head, and for example, go from a scarce community to one with a great deal of vegetation.

We don’t know to what extent it would be possible to carry out such a transformation. What is clear is that, if we want to stay here, we need to change ecosystems to a lesser or greater extent. This could imply that there would be species that would disappear, but we need to weigh up what we want.

But would it be ethical for humans to manipulate an ecosystem in this way?

Gene editing has always provoked a great deal of debate. Today it is used almost exclusively in intensive farming. Personally, I believe that the climate could be changed on a grand scale, as long as it is keeps within certain limits.

For example, we include genetic and ecological barriers to stabilise and monitor the behaviour of the microorganisms. The idea is to combine and protect the habitats that have been conserved with those that have been created synthetically to maintain biodiversity.

As well as defending the fact of being able to genetically edit ecosystems, you also explain that it is not just something for scientists, and that all of society should be involved. What is the responsibility of each of us to put the brakes on climate change?

If we all work together, we can change things. It worries me to think that my children will not have a future because we have ruined the climate. I am convinced that we are in time and that we can create a society in which we could live well. In order to achieve this, perhaps we need to rethink our consumer habits: use less plastic, make efficient use of energy, use the car less…

Human behaviour, therefore, is essential so that these kinds of ideas can triumph.

Absolutely. Most people are not aware that one small negative action can have a big effect on the climate. We are proposing a technological solution, but technology alone is not going to save us. We need both things: innovation and societal commitment.

By Alba Casilda