How biotech can stop – and prevent – forest fires

As the death toll continues to rise in Maui after the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in over a century, we are again reminded why it’s important to take measures to tame climate change. And these measures should include biotech innovations.

Biotech has a few solutions for combatting forest fires. One is a plant-based fire retardant developed by Stanford University scientists and engineers.

The gel-like fluid is designed to be applied to “ignition-prone areas,” a report noted. In addition, the hydrogel can help common fire retardants last longer. While the gel is biodegradable, it doesn’t wash away as easily as other retardants, giving vegetation prolonged protection against fires.

This innovation “has the potential to make wildland firefighting much more proactive, rather than reactive,” says Eric Appel, senior author of the study and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford School of Engineering.

What happens when nature ‘attacks’ itself?

The mountain pine beetle is making things worse for an already warming planet.

“The bugs start their damage when adult females lay their eggs just under a pine tree’s bark,” according to the Genetic Literacy Project. “At the same time, she also spreads fungi, which chemically turns tree tissue into food for larval beetles. This ultimately kills the tree, as the youngsters feed on both fungi and tree.”

According to Innovature, healthy plants naturally produce chemicals that act as insect repellents. However, due to global warming, plenty of trees “struggle to fight for survival,” so when they dry up, they’re the first to catch fire.

Luckily, researcher Dr. Diane Six might have a potential solution: breeding gene-edited beetle-resistant trees.

In the 2018 study, Dr. Six said her “findings suggest that survivorship is genetically based and, thus, heritable,” adding this information gives hope for further research.

One success story about genetically modified trees is that of Living Carbon. The young startup has already planted a forest of genetically modified poplar seedlings. As Bio.News reported, these seedlings “grow almost twice as fast as regular trees and can rapidly soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

Sustainable biotech solutions are key

We can combat climate change by pushing for more biotech-based solutions. As one example, sustainable aviation using biofuels has already shown the potential for a reduced carbon footprint among airline companies.

Biomanufacturing can also foster broader strategies, going beyond greenhouse gas emissions to reducing water consumption and waste, scaling down manufacturing processes where possible, using more sustainable materials, etc. All of these practices help reduce emissions, thereby reducing the risk of forest fires.

Other solutions include agricultural technology, including regenerative farming, low-emission fertilizers, and plants that capture more carbon.

Policymakers have an important role to play, too. These include:

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