GMOs can help us adapt to climate change

Like levees and seawalls, GMOs could help us to manage climate change's impact

Gabriela Serrato Marks

Science Journalism

Massive Science

Climate change is already affecting millions of people, and its effects will become only more apparent in the next few decades. The good news is that GMOs may be able to help on at least two fronts: insect-borne illnesses and carbon reduction.

Insect-borne illnesses

Consider a tick that latches onto a migratory bird and then falls off its host in northern Canada. Fifty years ago, that tick would have died quickly, too cold and hungry to survive - good news for Canadians in the neighborhood. But today the tick is much more likely to survive long enough to transmit Lyme disease; both mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses are increasingly common because of higher global temperatures. Insects and arachnids that carry diseases simply don't die as easily as they used to – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in early May that the number of Americans getting diseases from tick, flea, and mosquito bites has more than tripled, in part because of rising temperatures.

Genetic modification offers one potential solution in the form of transgenic mosquitoes that can’t compete as well for mates or produce viable offspring. Though it might sound counterintuitive to release more mosquitoes or ticks into the wild, GM bugs could actually help keep populations down. When modified mosquitoes successfully mate with wild mosquitoes, they transmit a gene that makes all the offspring die. That will cause a decrease in the overall mosquito population. Another, more controversial, approach is to engineer mosquitoes to pass on malaria resistance. Keeping mosquito and tick populations down controls the spread of viruses, such as Dengue or West Nile, and tick-borne pathogens with huge public health impacts. To put it bluntly, the world would be better off without mosquitoes.

Carbon reduction

In contrast to a swarm of malaria-laden mosquitoes, carbon emissions are a largely invisible problem, but they have major consequences for the global climate. As policy-driven efforts move slowly to decrease greenhouse gas production, many scientists and engineers are looking for other potential tools and strategies.

One carbon removal tool might be lurking in the ocean. Some varieties of coastal seagrass have a lot of potential to capture and store carbon. Using genetic engineering to add that ability to other seagrasses would make this a more viable way to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide. Growing transgenic seagrass will not stop climate change, but it does help us move in the right direction by decreasing carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

No single person can stop the expanding range of ticks or remove all the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but we can advocate for evidence-based policies surrounding GMOs. Just like other climate adaptation tools, such as levees and seawalls, GMOs could potentially help us to reduce climate change's impact on humans and our natural environment.