Human genome pioneer to discuss climate change at library

Charles_DeLisiHow should we tackle climate change? “We need something like a moon shot, human genome project or Manhattan project,” says Charles DeLisi, a Boston University professor of science and engineering.

DeLisi knows firsthand the magnitude of what he’s proposing. In the 1980s, he helped spearhead the human genome project, a massive, worldwide effort that by 2003 had revealed just about every gene in our bodies.

Now, DeLisi is turning his attention to climate change and how to combat it, matters he’ll discuss in a free talk at the Thomas Crane Public Library (40 Washington Street in Quincy) on Tuesday, October 16, at 7 pm. The talk is sponsored by the library, the Quincy Climate Action Network, March Forward Quincy and the Quincy Making Waves Coalition.

 “The world is going to be in big trouble if we continue going in the direction we’re going in,” DeLisi said in an interview about his talk on Quincy Access Television. The greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning coal and other fossil fuels, remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. So even reducing current emissions cannot keep global temperatures ­– and therefore sea levels – from rising above international targets, he says. “Carbon dioxide actually has to be removed from the atmosphere.”

That will be a major technological challenge, but DeLisi says genetic engineering could play an important role in the process. Every year, plants absorb about 14% of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide in the spring and summer before releasing it again when they die back in the colder months. “About 120 billion tons of carbon is exchanged between land and atmosphere every year,” says DeLisi. “If a small portion of the return were blocked, it could have a large impact on atmospheric CO2.”  One way to do that might be to genetically engineer plants to have deeper roots, which would keep more of the gas underground upon their deaths. “The result would be a net reduction in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” DeLisi says.

And that could have big economic impacts, since climate change is expected to cause ever more storm-related damage and health problems. “If you do nothing now about carbon dioxide, just let it keep on increasing, the total economic burden would be about $23 trillion by the end of the century,” DeLisi says.

Any techniques developed to scrub CO2 from the air could also pay dividends in other areas, he says. One proposal is to grow trees and then burn them to produce electric power, while also capturing and burying the resulting carbon dioxide. “That’s very expensive – the amount of arable land it would take would be substantial,” says DeLisi. Genetic engineering could allow trees and other crops to grow in what would otherwise be inhospitable soils, lowering costs and boosting agricultural profits in general.

By discussing these potential solutions among scientists, DeLisi, who trained as a physicist before spending his career in biomedicine, hopes to bridge the divide between biotechnology and climate-change research. But he also wants to talk through his proposals with the public because it will take action, and political pressure, to come up with the solutions needed to keep climate change in check. “Practical implementation of almost any approach is about 10 to 15 years off,” he says. “And of course the task becomes increasingly difficult the longer we delay.”

(Image credit: Charles DeLisi)