The Science

Carbon dioxide (CO2) and climate change

Although many people agree climate change is one of biggest problems we face, we still find it useful to visualize the magnitude of the challenge.

First, have you ever seen CO2? Normally it's invisible to the naked eye, but some researchers have created special cameras that allow you to see it.

Imagine walking down the street and looking at all that pollution around us.

Next, on this RFS, we'll be talking a lot about the 40 billion tonnes of CO2 released in the air every year. Picturing that is really hard, so let's start with something simple: one tonne of CO2 in solid form. Measured and stored at standard atmospheric pressure, one tonne of CO2 can fill a cube roughly the size of a three-story building (27 feet x 27 feet x 27 feet).

In solid form, 40,000,000,000 three story buildings worth of CO2 is released every year.

To learn more the general background behind climate change, its frightening feedback loops and tipping points, we recommend watching The World Set Free, an episode from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by Neil deGrasse Tyson, or An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore.

The 2018 IPCC report contains the latest informations and research that we have on this subject.

Next we'll go into a bit of basic knowledge that is useful to know as you are reading the ideas.


Ocean carbon pump

Marine ecosystems remove nearly one quarter of industrial CO2 emissions (about 8.4 Gt of CO2/year). Marine phytoplankton (microscopic biotic organisms) perform a third of all photosynthesis on Earth.

Phytoplankton live in the upper layer of all oceans and bodies of fresh water on Earth. They obtain energy through photosynthesis, a process that converts CO2 and sunlight into biomass.

Phytoplankton are consumed by microbes or zooplankton ("fish") that transform them into fecal pellets or organic aggregates ("marine snow"). About 1% of the surface production ends up at the bottom of the ocean, storing CO2 for 100 years or longer.

In order for phytoplankton to grow the ocean must contain nutrients. Alongside CO2 and light the process also requires nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron.

Unfortunately, most of the ocean doesn't have all the necessary nutrients to sustain phytoplankton. This means that, even though we have one of the largest possible CO2 bio sinks and one the most scalable biological processes, we're severely underutilizing it.

Worryingly, phytoplankton are being negatively impacted by a warmer and more acidic ocean. For instance, Increased temperature can reduce the mixing that naturally occurs in the ocean. Reduced mixing means that nutrients needed for growth might not get where they are needed.

One geo-engineering approach often proposed is fertilization: using boats to drop the missing nutrients in different parts of the oceans. While initial results have shown promising results, the costs and impact of doing it at scale are not yet understood.


Ocean acidification & alkalinity

When CO2 dissolves in seawater, the water becomes more acidic and the ocean's pH (a measure of how acidic or basic the ocean is) drops. At first, scientists thought that this might be a good thing because it leaves less CO2 in the air to warm the planet. But in the past decade, scientists realized that this slowed warming has come at the cost of changing the ocean's chemistry. Even though the ocean is immense, enough CO2 can have a major impact. In the past 200 years alone, ocean water has become 30 percent more acidic-faster than any known change in ocean chemistry in the last 50 million years.

Alkalinity refers to the capability of water to neutralize acid. If the ocean's alkalinity can be increased it can absorb more CO2.

At its core, the issue of ocean acidification is simple chemistry. There are two important things to remember about what happens when carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater. First, the pH of seawater water gets lower as it becomes more acidic. Second, this process binds up carbonate ions and makes them less abundant-ions that corals, oysters, mussels, and many other shelled organisms need to build shells and skeletons.

When water (H2O) and CO2 mix, they combine to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). Carbonic acid is weak compared to some of the well-known acids that break down solids, such as hydrochloric acid (the main ingredient in gastric acid, which digests food in your stomach) and sulfuric acid (the main ingredient in car batteries, which can burn your skin with just a drop). The weaker carbonic acid may not act as quickly, but it works the same way as all acids: it releases hydrogen ions (H+), which bond with other molecules in the area.

The lower the pH, the more acidic the solution. The pH scale goes from extremely basic at 14 (lye has a pH of 13) to extremely acidic at 0 (lemon juice has a pH of 2), with a pH of 7 being neutral (neither acidic or basic). The ocean itself is slightly basic, but it is changing in the direction of becoming less so.

So far, ocean pH has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 since the industrial revolution, and is expected by fall another 0.3 to 0.4 pH units by the end of the century. A drop in pH of 0.1 might not seem like a lot, but the pH scale, like the Richter scale for measuring earthquakes, is logarithmic. For example, pH 4 is ten times more acidic than pH 5 and 100 times (10 times 10) more acidic than pH 6. If we continue to add carbon dioxide at current rates, seawater pH may drop another 120 percent by the end of this century, to 7.8 or 7.7, creating an ocean more acidic than any seen for the past 20 million years or more.


Agriculture vs Cell Cultures

The invention of agriculture changed the course of human history, allowing the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture and settlement, making an increasingly larger population possible.

Later, we noticed that our excess agricultural grains would ferment, producing alcohol. We have been building breweries ever since.

Our breweries are environments for microorganisms to grow in large vats of water. We tweak things like humidity & temperature along with the mix of nutrients we add to the water and specific strains of yeast to bring out desired flavor profiles. The more control we have over our fermentation environment the more consistent the end product - hence, we have bioreactors or (usually closed) containers that give us control over parameters such as everything going in/out, humidity, temperature, pressure, gas concentrations, as well as physical agitation and spectral sampling..

You may be wondering just what that could mean for the future, so think of it this way: to produce one bottle of Chanel #5 perfume it takes an acre of roses, but Ginkgo Bioworks was able to produce the same fragrance by engineering yeast. Instead of slow growing plants that take months if not years to mature, yeast can multiply as quickly as doubling every 60 minutes. Given plants are volumetrically very inefficient in producing the core consumable we are after - eg flower - cell cultures end up being 1000x+ more efficient when the density of water is coupled with the high growth rate of microorganisms.

Just like the printing press, books, and the internet have evolved the intent, format, and reach of writing; the technological evolution of humanity points to the movement away from industrial agriculture and towards localized, distributed production of cell cultures as our primary nutrition source.

The fast face developments in this field allow us to look beyond trees and crops to highly specialized synthetic bio organisms.



DNA holds the source code of life. In a cell, DNA is transcribed into RNA, which in turn is translated into proteins. DNA -> RNA -> Proteins.

You can think of RNA as a long string where each character is one of 4 possible bases (A, U, G, C). RNA is translated ("compiled") into proteins, complex 3D molecules that do most of the work in cells. Enzymes are usually proteins, though some RNA molecules act as enzymes too.

Enzymes speeds up a chemical reaction. They perform the critical task of lowering a reaction's activation energy-that is, the amount of energy that must be put in for the reaction to begin.

Enzymes don't live only inside cells. For example, in digestion, when food enters the small intestine, the pancreas secretes a variety of different enzymes in order to properly break down the food.

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