The Lorax Revisited

12/18/23   |   Written by Xander Balwit

Hickory, NC—June 17th, 2040

“The woods are lovely, bright, and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep…”

Do you recognize the poem?” Hayden looked at me, his cornflower blue eyes glinting from over his snow glasses, which had skied down the piste of his sunscreen-lathered nose. “It’s by the American poet Robert Frost, but modified a little.”

We had almost reached the ridgeline, and Hayden, garrulous even while out of breath, remained meters ahead of me, binoculars swinging like a metronome in an ecstatic allegro.

“Almost there,” he urged.

From the top of the hill, we could survey the property and surrounding woods. Gray catbirds, freshly arrived for breeding season, encircled us with mellifluous trills. The temperature had been steadily rising as we climbed higher and left the understory, and I was sweating profusely despite my short sleeves. Peering over the reflective canopy beneath us, I could feel beads of perspiration gather on my chin.

Below us, Hayden’s trees stretched for acres, a mosaic of alabaster lily pads on a deep green pond.

“Do you think they might one day rename these the White Ridge Mountains?” Hayden asked, gesturing toward the distant hilltops.

Tomorrow was the 10th anniversary of Lorax, Hayden Wilde’s forestry project named after the eponymous Dr. Seuss character, defender of trees. Hayden, an intrepid synthetic biologist, and his team had invited me back to North Carolina to cover the festivities for The Times. My reportage on the initial launch, “To Cool Down the Forest, Lighten It,” was produced back when this little slice of valley and my environmental journalism career were both still green. Since then, the Lorax Project’s effort to bioengineer white, light-reflecting trees, had matured from leggy greenhouse seedlings to hectares of heat-reducing timberland.

The last decade had both harrowed and encouraged me as I grew alongside them, trending, thankfully, toward the latter. In my first year, I covered unseasonable hurricanes in Florida, deep frosts in California, and temperatures in Arizona so hot that they melted my camera lens. But gradually, the relentless work of environmentalists, activists, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs started to gain traction. Pulled along by the current of progress, I found myself covering deep geothermal heat pumps, efforts to breed heat-tolerant coral, and the proliferation of eco-friendly bio-plastics. A generation of people had heeded the warning that they might be the last generation and moved instead to be the first sustainable one.

Hayden Wilde followed these developments with rapt enthusiasm. He had been in college when he first read about efforts to cool down cities with the widespread use of reflective paints and coatings. Back in 2020, a team from Purdue University had unveiled a paint that reflected 98 percent of the sun’s rays back through the atmosphere into space. In the years that followed, thousands of miles of rooftops across the globe had been painted white. It was radiant cooling projects such as these that sparked the idea for Lorax: What if one could engineer trees that could reflect heat energy in much the same way—White trees?

The first people Hayden told about his idea to invent white trees balked. If they didn’t simply ignore him or avert because of sentimentality, they lectured him about the basics of plant biology. But Hayden, evangelical about biotech’s ability to transform the seemingly intractable, didn’t yield.

“Many of us saw the need for biotech in addressing the climate crisis early on,” said Caroline Ross, a molecular biologist whom I had met in 2031 while reporting on the progress of a stand of gene-edited trees in southern Georgia belonging to a group called Living Carbon. “The other strategies that were being applied simply wouldn’t have been enough without it. The first of us to work on making climate-resilient food plants or increasing the carbon-capture potential of croplands saw ourselves more as pragmatists than visionaries.”

Living Carbon was one of the first large-scale commercial efforts to bioengineer trees, and like the white paint, provided Hayden the inspiration for Project Lorax. Co-founded after a climate tech conference in 2023, Patrick Mellor, Maddie Hall, and researchers like Caroline Ross aimed to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis by genetically modifying trees to sequester more carbon. By using a crude technique to splice foreign DNA into another organism’s genome known as “the gene gun method,” the scientists at Living Carbon managed to create transgenic poplars that increased their biomass production by up to 53%. Celebrating their findings in a landmark paper, the authors emphatically stated that their “results provide a proof-of-concept for engineering trees to help combat climate change.”

Others did not need convincing. In that same year, a group out of North Carolina State University genetically modified trees to have more sustainable and robust wood fiber. By tweaking the trees’ genomes, they produced poplars with reduced lignin content, managing to increase pulp yield and help mills produce up to 40% more sustainable fibers. They too, echoed the importance of editing trees, musing that “When you think about the fact that about 57% of all carbon on the planet is in trees, editing trees is arguably the best path to address that and achieve what we intend to achieve as a planet in light of global warming.”

So it was that with these first triumphs, trees, once both vastly complex and secretive, began to reveal their workings to synthetic biology. Still, there was a long road ahead paved with regulatory hurdles, public controversy, and technical struggles. And while Project Lorax encountered all three, its foremost challenge was circumventing the most obdurate natural process in the plant world: photosynthesis.

Chlorophyll, the pigment that enables trees to produce energy through photosynthesis, is required for the growth of healthy trees. While there are plants that lack chlorophyll, a genetic condition known as Albinism that causes white coloration, these are often parasitic, inviable, or only partially albino so they can still photosynthesize. Creating a white tree, or one only partially white, required harnessing albinism to viable plant function.

“The breakthrough couldn’t happen until we better understood the methods needed to create transgenic plants,” said Hayden.

“One of the aspects that made traditional crop breeding challenging and slow, was that it’s not always possible to select all the genes you’d like to select in each generation. However, we now have techniques like CRISPR that allow us to control gene expression at very specific times during development, which enables us to tune the activity of specific parts of the plant. It also allows us to target our genes of interest with higher accuracy.”

Instead of modifying the whole organism and waiting for it to regenerate, Hayden and his team learned to precisely introduce novel DNA after growth has started. Their method was to begin by cutting off the meristem of a plant, the tissue containing undifferentiated cells able to divide and become specialized cells and tissues—typically the area from which the plant grows. Then, onto this newly pruned stem, the geneticists would deliver proteins that stimulate meristem development and an agrobacterium containing the edited version of the DNA.

Rather than creating a wholly white tree, they were able to engineer a tree whose canopy was white. Using CRISPR gene-editing technology, Hayden and his team figured out how to strategically knock out phytoene desaturase, the enzyme important for chlorophyll, which resulted in white plants. By collecting the seeds from these modified plants, the scientists were able to create a partially albino phenotype that could photosynthesize, survive in soil, and reproduce while also increasing the albedo effect by reflecting more solar energy. Using this meristem method facilitated by CRISPR, Hayden and his team produced 134 edited loblolly pine variants.

A fully white tree still remains Lorax’s white whale.

“We chose Lorax because we wanted a name that would help assuage people’s anxiety,” said Hayden’s co-founder, Evan Paxton, when I had spoken with him at the first planting. “Do you remember the kids’ book about the odd little creature who spoke for the trees? We wanted to call that benign image to mind and remind people that genetic engineering is on the side of the planet.”

Still, the project’s use of the celebrated tree defender didn’t protect the Lorax from backlash. During its first year out of the greenhouse, the fields were vandalized on two different occasions. This was not out of the ordinary for genetic engineering projects. Even though there were new causes célèbres for environmentalists, residual disquiet over gene editing continued to stymie many such efforts.

In 1987 and 1988, UC Berkeley researchers working with a Bay Area biotechnology company faced considerable public protest over the field-testing of strawberry plants that had been genetically engineered with the “ice minus” bacteria for frost resistance. This ice-minus bacterium, P. syringae, was the first genetically modified organism to be released into the wild. Instigated by an activist named Jeremy Rifkin, local officials and environmental groups descended upon Brentwood, California, destroying the strawberry fields and, later, potato plants that had also been treated. These disruptions were themselves not as bad as the attitudes and regulations they precipitated. For years after the ice-minus protests, gene-edited crops were banned or highly regulated in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

But as these restrictions eased in the ensuing decades, the misconceptions and sometimes outright hostilities held by the public toward genetically modified plants eased with them, especially as people weighed the potential risks against addressing global warming. While it was worth taking the fears seriously that genetically altered trees could somehow lead to unexpected consequences in local ecosystems or public health, the cost of doing nothing would have been far higher.

In Hickory though, residents weren’t interested in moralistic arguments or abstract discussions about environmental risks. After all, it wasn’t gene editing per se that caused their hackles to rise. Being from lumber country, folks around this tract of the Blue Ridge were more amenable than most to experimental foresting. What they wanted was tangible gains—lowered AC bills, subsidies, and investment in local infrastructure. It wasn’t until they saw these, that protestors stopped harassing the tree farm and once-vociferous local objectors donned hats emblazoned with the trees’ likeness.

Hickory was a reminder that feasibility wasn’t the only thing needed for science to prevail. Consideration of aesthetics, sentimentality, politics, and above all, a sense of fairness—were also critical. Or, to paraphrase Charles Mann, in the world outside of the laboratory people care not about what is feasible but what seems right. Understanding this is what allows scientists to bring their projects to fruition.

“I sometimes shudder to think what would have happened to our planet had we stayed leery of bioengineering,” Ross mused.

“What would we be feeding people? How would we be cleaning up algae blooms? And what if we still had malarial mosquitoes? As I see it, using our molecular and technical repertoire to unlock biology is the most profound method we have to improve life not only for our species but also for other living things whose lives entwine with our own.”

When Hayden and I made it back down to the research center, we were told there was a small celebration going on up on the roof. Music drifted down the ladder, and I could hear the team animated about something. Once I hoisted myself through the hatch door, Hayden ushered me over excitedly. “Come, come, you have to see this! It is the second time we’ve spotted them!”
He handed me a pair of binoculars and pointed at a stand of trees in front of us.

“The second row—look at the big bow there”

Adjusting the focus, I could make out a couple of pale medium-sized birds flitting around in the pine. “What am I supposed to be looking at?” I asked.

“Those are gray catbirds,” explained Evan. “Except that pair is white!”

Looking closer, I could see he was right. Even with the sun beginning to fade, I could see that the plumage was bright and pearly. The birds, routine visitors to this region, had begun to change color, directed evolution shaping a non-directed one. I watched for a while, as the birds chased each other around the white tree-tops. Sometimes I would lose sight of them, and then they would dart down into the darker foliage beneath, luminous against the deep dark wood.

“They’re adapting,” I marveled.

By Xander Balwit