Tobias Erb in the lab (photo credit: Thomas Hartmann / MPG).

Plants suck carbon dioxide out of the air during photosynthesis. It’s not enough to remove all of the pollution causing global warming. But what if someone could design a plant with an insatiable need for more CO2?

That’s the idea behind Tobias Erb’s research at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. He started with 17 different enzymes from bacteria, plants and humans.

Erb: “What we have done is basically designing new biology from scratch in a truly bottom-up approach. It’s not just tinkering around with existing plants. It’s really trying to rebuild a central part of biology.”

Using this “bottom-up” approach, Erb created a system that could someday enable plants to absorb and store more carbon dioxide.

It’s only been tried in a test tube. And Erb compares the next step to doing an organ transplant on a human.

Erb: “The problem is how to transplant our stuff into living systems.”

Erb doesn’t know if the next step will be successful. But if it works, he envisions the system being used in a controlled setting. For example, imagine vats of algae created solely to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s an idea that might someday help us clean up carbon pollution and maintain a safe climate.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune and other...