What climate change challenges do we need to address and what role can genetic technologies play?

Welcome kick-off with Mariette DiChristina, Dean of the Boston University College of Communication

What are the climate change challenges to meet? Why might new technologies be needed? What can technologies do and what can’t they do? How can we be mindful about how technologies are developed and deployed?

Daniel Goodwin

Executive Director and Co-founder at Homeworld Collective and Schmidt Climate Innovation Fellow

Juliette Rooney-Varga

Professor and Director of Climate Change Initiative at UMass Lowell

Lindi von Mutius

Director of Climate Action Accelerator at the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability at Harvard University

Edward (Ed) Wack

Division Head of Biotechnology and Human Systems at MIT Lincoln Lab

Choose to sit with special guests representing different genetic technologies, community engagement approaches, and more.

topic: bioweathering

Neil Dalvie

Synthetic Biology Research Fellow in Pam Silver group at Harvard Medical School and Schmidt Science Fellow

topic: funding models and interdisciplinary community-building for climate-focused biotech

Daniel Goodwin

Executive Director and Co-founder of Homeworld Collective and Schmidt Climate Innovation Fellow

topic: biocontainment strategies in microbes

Nicholas (Nick) Guido

Technical Staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory

topic: community-engaged basic research

Carole Hyacinthe

Postdoctoral Fellow in Cliff Tabin group at the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School

topic: Pivot Bio technology for reduction in chemical nitrogen fertilizer in agricultural crops

Alvin Tamsir

Chief Scientific Officer and Co-founder at Pivot Bio

topic: wildfire resilience in soils and plants and other environmental biotech solutions targeting specific bioregional climate challenges

Teal Brown Zimring

Executive Director of Lab to Land

Weighing up risks and benefits: what role do we want genetic technologies to play?

How do we question and weigh benefits and risks? What is needed for more public engagement? How do we responsibly communicate about emerging technologies? How do we ensure that communities are empowered to have these conversations?

Sam Weiss Evans

Senior Policy Advisor at the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology

Natalie Kofler

Founder of Editing Nature and Co-Director of the Scientific Citizenship Initiative at Harvard Medical School

Rebecca Pearl-Martinez

Executive Director of the Institute for Global Sustainability at Boston University

Pamela Silver

Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School

Public conversation with special guests

Melissa Hoffer

Massachusetts State Inaugural Climate Chief

Andrew Revkin

Award winning climate journalist and host of Sustain What? webcast

Sir Richard Roberts

Nobel laureate and Chief Scientific Officer at New England Biolabs

Teal Brown Zimring

Executive Director of Lab to Land

Moderated by

David Abel

Climate and Environment Journalist and Professor of the Practice BU College of Communication

Event Summary

Climate Event Gathers Stakeholders Across Disciplines

“How might genetic technologies contribute to addressing climate change?” the inaugural event from Connecting Genetics to Climate, made clear the need to bring together different perspectives in spaces where a wide range of expertise coincide.

Held on May 8, 2024 in collaboration with Boston University’s College of Communication, the event connected researchers in climate change, genetics, synthetic biology, biocontainment and biosecurity with biotech industry representatives, policymakers, science for policy advisors, journalists, and public engagement specialists for a day-long exploration of the potential promise and risks of genetic-based biotechnologies applied to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Defining the Problem

The theme for the day, introduced by Mariette DiChristina (Dean of the College of Communication at Boston University), was informed, continuous, and constructive public dialogue across a wide range of communities. Turning to climate change specifically, Morgan Thompson (Director of Operations, Connecting Genetics to Climate) shared how this incredibly complex problem requires society to look at solutions that build on the scientific expertise across multiple fields, involving different approaches, in different settings.

The morning panel – Juliette Rooney-Varga, Ph.D. (Professor and Director of Climate Change Initiative at UMass Lowell), Lindi von Mutius, ALM (Director of Climate Action Accelerator at the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability at Harvard University) and Edward Wack, M.S. (Division Head of Biotechnology and Human Systems at MIT Lincoln Lab) – were tasked with laying out the scope of the challenges at hand.

Given the limited time scale for action, the panelists agreed on the urgent need to explore all options for addressing climate change. While there was agreement that nature-based products could complement existing approaches, panelists disagreed on whether it might not be more effective to spend our collective energy generating the political will required to implement existing technologies. As Rooney-Varga warned, caution is needed when deciding how best to use “technologies to address the fundamentals that we have in place without getting distracted by shiny solutions.” Audience members expressed similar levels of optimism and unease, with some pointing out that biological approaches have their own drawbacks, including the increased use of scarce resources such as land and the production of unwanted byproducts.

Tech Examples and More

With the discussion still going strong, the group split out into roundtables to learn about specific technologies, funding models, monitoring and measuring risk and change, and tools and approaches to working with complexity, risk, and trade-offs in the climate change context.

  • Neil Dalvie, Ph.D. (Synthetic Biology Research Fellow in Pam Silver’s research group at Harvard Medical School and Wyss Institute) talked about his work on accelerating bioweathering. In this natural process, microbes help break down rocks, which allows carbon dioxide to be removed from the atmosphere as part of a geological process called the carbonate-silicate cycle.
  • Daniel Goodwin, M.S. (Executive Director and Co-founder of Homeworld Collective) showcased his organization’s community-building approach to supporting biotechnologists working on problems of climate change. By providing seed funding for early-stage research, the Homeworld Collective offers opportunities for researchers to explore novel ideas that might not otherwise be supported.
  • Nicolas Guido, Ph.D. (researcher, MIT Lincoln Lab) shared his work on biocontainment in microbes, where he studies methods to measure and manage risks of unintended consequences of engineered organisms and organisms with synthetic genomes in the environment.
  • Carole Hyacinthe, Ph.D. (Postdoctoral Fellow, Cliff Tabin’s research group, Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School), shared her experience participating in a climate-change focused competition in the Harvard Department of Genetics back in 2019 and the importance of community engagement as part of the research process.
  • Juliette Rooney-Varga (Professor and Director of the Climate Change Initiative at UMass Lowell) presented the Climate Action Simulator, an interactive game that allows players to see the impact of changing different emissions “levers” such as fossil fuel production and agriculture policy.
  • Alvin Tamsir, Ph.D. (Chief Scientific Officer and Co-founder, Pivot Bio) shared his company’s work developing a microbial treatment for agricultural crop seed that does not require the use of chemically-produced, greenhouse gas-emitting nitrogen fertilizers.
  • Teal Brown Zimring (Executive Director, Lab to Land) described how she approaches climate resilience strategies writ large, such as helping develop soil microbes for enhanced fire resilience.

Benefit vs. Risk

In the afternoon session, Leonor Sierra (Director of Communications and Public Engagement, Connecting Genetics to Climate) asked the group to collectively consider how we can start weighing up benefits and risks of emerging technologies in order to make societal decisions about implementation.

Our panel – Sam Weiss Evans, DPhil, (Senior Policy Advisor, National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology), Natalie Kofler, Ph.D. (Co-director, Scientific Citizenship Initiative; Founder and Director, Editing Nature), Rebecca Pearl-Martinez, M.A. (Executive Director, Institute for Global Sustainability at Boston University), and Pamela Silver, Ph.D. (Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School and Wyss Institute) – grappled with the awareness that while inaction in the face of the climate change challenge poses a serious risk, implementing genetic technologies carries its own set of risks, not all of which are known.

Panel and audience members emphasized the difficulty in assigning quantitative values that can be used to weigh these risks, adding to the challenge of uncertainty when needing to make difficult decisions.

When deciding how to weigh such risks, the panel members agreed that different communities needed to be involved in discussions, in order to consider a wide set of values and perspectives. However, there was disagreement as to when in the research and development process this consultation should happen, and which communities should be consulted at which steps. The panel recognized the need for balance between exigency and efficacy, while conceding that there are no easy solutions other than to continue having conversations that update and diversify the operational knowledge from which we are making decisions about technology development and implementation.

The Big Picture

To wrap things up, we held a high-level discussion of how all these issues are being tied together. Moderated by David Abel, M.S. (journalist and professor of practice at Boston University), the panel included Melissa Hoffer, J.D. (Massachusetts Climate Chief), journalist Andrew Revkin, Sir Richard Roberts, FRS, (Chief Scientific Officer, New England Biolabs) and Teal Brown Zimring (Executive Director, Lab to Land).

After reemphasizing the need for new technologies for climate mitigation and adaptation, the panel reviewed some nature-based genetic technologies. Panelists then turned to the issue of how best to question, evaluate impacts, and make decisions about the development and implementation of emerging technologies with climate applications.

The panel debated what sort of regulatory environment is needed to promote innovation and implementation. In particular, the discussion addressed how different entities at the local, state, national and international levels have been, and can ideally, interact. Hoffer pointed out how Massachusetts is a leader in both the climate tech and life sciences spaces, with the Mass Leads Act commitment to providing resources and investment in new technologies within the state, while also streamlining implementation of existing technologies, such as the clean tech startup Via Separations, an MIT incubated technology producing membranes that allow for more efficient industrial filtration.

When considering what is needed to build out the public participation and consent processes, the panel focused on mechanisms for delivery and processing of information about technologies and policies, for all communities and valuing different types of expertise. A major challenge the group identified was dealing with, and validating, multiple sources of information, especially given the negative tenor in which climate change is frequently framed. In addition, the panel members pointed to a disconnect between discussions about addressing climate change and personal actions (or lack thereof) that will have real impact.

What Did We Learn?

90% of individuals who registered for the day-long program were in attendance, indicating a high level of interest. Feedback from attendees, the majority of whom stayed for the full day, was positive. “I liked the multidisciplinary, conversational approach,” said one. “I really appreciated the roundtable format,” added another. Multiple participants gave feedback that suggested, “it would be helpful to learn more about how these [genetic] technologies are put into practice, and how to support these efforts.”

The Connecting Genetics to Climate team had several key takeaways:

  • There is shared enthusiasm for continuing to convene interdisciplinary groups to explore together issues related to the development and implementation of biotechnologies with climate applications.
  • We need to continue to further our understanding of how proposed technologies work, differences in contexts of how they are developed and could be applied, as well as how we collectively weigh-up, monitor, and manage benefits and risks responsively and responsibly.
  • A big challenge is connecting the many players and their respective roles in addressing climate change in a way that furthers timely action and continuous updating of operating knowledge streams from which decisions are made.
  • Gaining buy-in and support for different types of climate change solutions varies based on location, including levels of severity in lived experience with climate impacts.

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Additional resources on these topics

Researchers at universities, institutes, government labs, and companies are exploring how genetics might be a tool to help with problems posed by a changing climate and how society can and should be involved in decision-making. Some technologies are already being trialed and many more are under development.

As these technologies are developed and become available, policymakers and communities will have to consider vital questions, such as: Who should decide when technologies are developed and used? What are foreseeable consequences? Can we design, and monitor use of, technologies to address potential unforeseen consequences?

Continue the conversation with us!