Biotechnology in the Era of Climate Change

Climate change threatens Thailand’s farmlands and the country’s valuable biodiversity. Scientists are working to predict future changes and minimize their impact.

Erawan Falls near Kanchanaburi, Thailand © Sander Kamp

A month before world leaders gathered in Copenhagen last December to haggle over CO2 emissions, another greenhouse gas made headlines briefly. The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies released findings that methane (CH4) was potentially a more serious contributor to climate change than previously thought. Though less abundant than CO2, CH4’s impacts on atmospheric warming are 21 times greater, and so it has been gaining traction as the next greenhouse gas targeted for global regulation. This worries Thailand. Rice paddies, which are integral to Thailand’s society and economy, generate 20 percent of the world’s methane.

“Our scientists are aware of this issue and are exploring more integrated...

Erawan Falls near Kanchanaburi, Thailand © Sander Kamp

A month before world leaders gathered in Copenhagen last December to haggle over CO2 emissions, another greenhouse gas made headlines briefly. The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies released findings that methane (CH4) was potentially a more serious contributor to climate change than previously thought. Though less abundant than CO2, CH4’s impacts on atmospheric warming are 21 times greater, and so it has been gaining traction as the next greenhouse gas targeted for global regulation. This worries Thailand. Rice paddies, which are integral to Thailand’s society and economy, generate 20 percent of the world’s methane.

“Our scientists are aware of this issue and are exploring more integrated approaches to rice paddy irrigation and fertilizer application, and the need for new rice varieties that might bring substantial reductions in methane emissions, but it’s not our highest priority right now,” says Chitnucha Buddabun, senior researcher of the National Rice Department.

Like many Thai researchers, Chitnucha’s hands are full determining how best to respond to the impacts climate change has already sent their way, including warmer temperatures, more erratic rainfall, and droughts. Thailand and much of Southeast Asia face a disproportionate share of global impacts as atmospheric temperatures rise. From the lack of glacial melt feeding the Mekong headwaters to seawater encroachment into Thailand’s vast coastal zones, the country will not escape the impacts of climate change.

“We’ve got to prepare for changes in storm patterns and rainfall that could have far-reaching impacts throughout the country,” says Chitnucha. “More frequent natural disasters, disruption of historical farming patterns, and water shortages are a few of the impacts that we will likely experience in many parts of the country. Coastal communities, especially Bangkok’s metropolitan area, will face additional challenges due to storm surges and sea level rise.”

Thailand leads regional climate modeling efforts. Thai scientists are also trying to understand how the country should evolve its agricultural sector, land-use planning, and energy strategy to adapt to these changes as well as contribute to global CO2 emissions reduction efforts.

Biotechnology is an integral tool in this process. Bioindication from changing plants and wildlife behaviors helps to improve understanding of the changes already occurring; gene pyramiding is helping to devise crops for the new climate regime; and advances in biofuels and bioplastics are helping to reduce fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

“We’re even capturing methane from residential and livestock waste, as part of our biofuels effort, but a different approach will certainly be needed if we have to reduce methane from our rice fields,” says Saijit Jawana, an independent community biogas consultant.

Mapping a farming landscape

Crop production as a food source and for export revenues will be strongly affected by hydrological change caused by atmospheric CO2 concentrations, says Krirk Pannengpetch of Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Agriculture. Changes in the duration of wet and dry seasons, as well as in precipitation patterns, may have strong impacts on crop yields and crop cycles as radiation (daylight), moisture, and distribution of rainfall over time may change in the future. The generally shorter and more intense rainy season implies that the varieties of rice and other crops currently grown may not be as productive in the future.

To better understand how climate change would impact Thailand’s agriculture, Krirk applied regional climate modeling to simulations for major crops including rice, corn, cassava, and sugar cane. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s A2 scenario was used, which assumes atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 330 ppm in 1980, rising to 833 ppm in 2099. The findings revealed different trends for each of the four crops. Increases in CO2 and temperature had a severe impact on cassava, showing a 43 percent reduction in productivity. Corn production decreased by 15 percent. Irrigated rice production fell by 9–18 percent, while rain-fed rice and sugar cane both saw a five percent increase in productivity.

However, the results for all crops were highly variable, both geographically and temporally. One northern region, for example, saw the percentage of low productivity cassava plantations increasing from 0.7 percent in 1989 to 79 percent by the 2090s. Low-productivity rice fields increased from 4.9 percent in 1989 to 6.5 percent in the 2090s.

“There’s little doubt that climate change is going to keep our agricultural researchers busy,” says Sahaschai Kongthon, senior advisor in the Agricultural Soil Management Department. “Moreover, we have to communicate these risks to farmers, who are experiencing and bewildered by today’s climate variability anyway.”

While concerned, Sahaschai believes that Thailand can be as prepared as any nation to adapt its crops to rising temperatures. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but we’ve had a fairly solid research infrastructure in place to support the development of more advanced varieties of nearly all our major crops.”

Theerayut Toojinda, a leading plant breeder at the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), is currently working at the Rice Gene Discovery Unit, using gene pyramiding to develop what he calls Super Jasmine Rice, a variety that is highly disease- and pest-resistant, as well as more resilient to floods and drought. He sees climate change as merely an extension of what he’s already been doing.

There is one caveat, however. Thailand’s Agricultural Ministry has been slow to accept Krirk’s findings, and has yet to incorporate climate-change modeling and adaptation planning into its operations.

“It’s not that we doubt climate change is coming, it’s just that nobody wants to endeavor into something new unless policy makers give the nod, accompanied by budgets,” Sahaschai says. “Most government agencies’ responses to climate change now are merely to add the terminology into their vocabulary.”

Agency foot dragging on climate change may come to an end soon. Thailand is in the process of preparing a 10-year National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Framework that is heavily influenced by the need for the government to develop a coordinated response to climate change. High on the agenda will be innovations to enhance climate-modeling capacity, agriculture for food and energy security, and emerging diseases, says Surachai Sathitkunarak, Policy Researcher at the National Science Technology and Innovation Policy Office.

Tangible evidence

Computer modeling and simulations are unnecessary for biologist Visut Baimai to know that climate change has a real impact. He sees it in the responses of plants and animals to the higher ambient temperatures of their habitats. Visut coordinates a growing network of field biologists who operate long-term research stations and share their data with his Biodiversity Research and Training Program (BRT), established jointly between BIOTEC and Thailand Research Fund (TRF).

Phillip Round, one of Thailand’s most prominent ornithologists, says he started to sense something was amiss nearly 25 years ago when he began monitoring Siamese firebacks (Lophura diardi), a type of pheasant, at Thailand’s oldest national park, Khao Yai. Historically, the birds were never found above 700 meters, but gradually they began living at higher altitudes, and now they are seldom seen below 800 meters, says Round, who is with Mahidol University’s Department of Biology.

Temperature gauges surrounding the park have recorded a 2°C increase in the minimum mean temperature over that same period, Round adds. He has observed no other changes in the species’ habitat that might account for their move upward.

Chutiorn Savinee, another ornithologist with Mahidol University, has been studying the rare great hornbill (Buceros bicornis) and suspects that warming temperatures at Khao Yai are responsible for lengthening the incubation and rearing periods for fledgling birds. “It’s grown from 120 to about 140 days now, largely, we believe, because their food supply has diminished due to the warmer and drier climate here,” she states in a recent report.

Another species in the park that may be affected by changing food supplies is the white-handed gibbon (Hylobates lar). In a recent report to the BRT, researchers noted that distribution of wild rambutan (Nephelium maingayi) has moved to higher latitudes. “This fruit plant is usually found in shady areas with cool climates, so they might be escaping the increasing heat and stronger sunlight exposure in the lower altitude,” Visut says.

Round suspects that solar heat may also affect regeneration of plant species in Khao Yai. At the same research field where the pheasants were observed, the research team found reduced numbers of wild plant saplings. Within a 10-hectare observation area, of the 143 gambir trees, only seven had new saplings nearby. The coral trees of the Erythrina genus and Sapium baccatum Roxb. demonstrate similar patterns of sapling reduction.

Closer to the equator, changes are also being observed in one of Thailand’s rare cloud forests. Visut says the forest’s moisture content is declining, so he is now funding researchers to establish monitoring stations to better document the changes. Researchers in Malaysia and Indonesia have been reporting declining moisture content in their cloud forests for more than a decade. Globally, cloud forests are seen as important bioindicators, and many are targets of international conservation efforts.

“All the evidence coming in seems to point to rising temperatures,” says Visut. “Individually, we might be able to argue away the relationships, but in the aggregate, the cause and effect appears rather stark.”

He believes that further documentation of such trends will help accelerate public support for more aggressive climate-change policies. “Thai people are more concerned with animals than they are [with] graphs and charts. For better or worse, they need to see these kinds of impacts before they will feel compelled to act,” he says.

Biomass breaks

By 2022, Thailand plans to meet 14 percent of its total energy demand with renewable energy. Much of this transition is anticipated to come through converting the county’s extensive amounts of fibrous biomass materials from its agriculture sector into electricity and liquid biofuels.

More than 60 million tons of biomass is generated annually from Thailand’s agriculture sector, especially sugarcane bagasse, rice straw, corn stover, and cassava pulp. While about one-third is used for fertilizers, animal feed, and construction material, the remainder offers the theoretical equivalent of 70 million barrels of crude oil. While Thai scientists do not expect ever to reach that level of efficiency, they are nonetheless working to squeeze as much energy as possible from this valuable resource, especially as its natural decomposition adds to atmospheric CO2 concentration.

In conjunction with Thailand’s efforts to support self-sufficient economies at the community level, ethanol production from local agricultural byproducts has been promoted. The concept for community ethanol is based on small-scale production of ethanol from local lignocellulosic feedstock with onsite-produced enzymes for reducing the cost of transporting bulky biomass. The ethanol will then be partially concentrated and transported to ethanol plants for upgrading to high-grade biofuel. Researchers at BIOTEC have developed an enhanced method for ethanol production from bagasse—the leftover cane stalk after the sucrose is pressed out—that is as efficient as conventional processes, but simpler and more environmentally friendly.

First, simple ball milling is used in a pretreatment process to increase the efficiency of the enzymes used when converting the bagasse cellulose and hemicelluloses into sugars. Second, the biomass hydrolysis—the conversion of cellulose and hemicelluloses into sugar—is performed with enzymes produced from selected microbial strains from BIOTEC’s culture collection with a simple fermentation process, reinforcing local biodiversity protection for biotechnology purposes.

“Conventional fermentation process only converts glucose to ethanol, but ours results in more ethanol obtained, because we use Thai-isolated yeast strains that can utilize both glucose and xylose,” says Lily Eurwilaichitr, Director of Bioresources Technology Unit at BIOTEC.

The most interesting and challenging aspect is the screening and production of active lignocellulolytic enzymes from microbial strains for efficient hydrolysis of local biomass. Although the locally made enzyme is not much better than the commercially available enzyme, a concept of onsite enzyme production that uses local fungal isolates and inexpensive agroindustrial wastes as substrates for enzyme production makes this new process economically attractive, says Lily. The on-site enzyme production also results in minimal carbon footprint compared to commercial enzymes, which are imported from overseas as Thailand has no enzyme production industry.

Although Lily’s integrated process is not so much of a breakthrough discovery, she offers an improvement to the conventional process by using mechanical pretreatment rather than chemical to minimize environmental impact, as well as the utilization of local microorganisms for the fermentation process and enzyme production. Current research activity is focusing on further improvement of a more economically feasible process in bioreactor scale based on this concept. The study is still at a lab scale and will need pilot demonstration. However, it is a promising alternative for bioethanol production that will save cost and minimize carbon footprint in the long run.

Greener containers

Thai researchers are also utilizing surplus biomass to mine raw materials for organic plastics or bioplastics. Pursuing bioplastics offers multiple benefits, including reducing the petroleum typically used for plastics manufacturing, generating products that degrade more efficiently, and creating opportunities to supply both raw material and finished products to the export market.

“We may be just coming out of our infancy with this technology, but we’ve got the complete manufacturing process operating in Thailand now,” says Wantanee Chongkum, director of the Innovation Management Department at the National Innovation Agency. “All that’s needed to scale up production and bring costs down is sufficient government support and more private investors.”

Wantanee emphasizes that this is big business for Thailand. Coming in behind only China and Japan in Asia, Thailand is the world’s eighth leading exporter of plastic, and is now utilizing its agricultural muscle and biotech expertise to play a leading role in bioplastics research, development, and manufacturing. Global demand for bioplastics is forecasted to nearly triple over the next 4 years to 1.5 million tons, worth $2.5 billion. By 2020, the United States market alone is expected to be worth $10 billion.

Renewable sources, such as starch from cassava or sugarcane, are particularly desirable to manufacturers, and Thailand grows both. Many of the country’s top producers of conventional petroleum-based plastics have already diversified their operations to include bioplastics manufacturing. In 2007, the Cabinet approved and funded the 2008–2010 bioplastics road map to prioritize the industry’s further development.

Wantanee explains that Thai manufacturers keep scientists busy in their constant search for feedstock with higher starch contents and for more efficient fermentation processes to lower manufacturing costs. In 2001, scientists at the Suranaree University of Technology identified and developed two starch-fermenting bacterium isolates, SUT1 and SUT5, which convert glucose to lactic acid, a principle biodegradable polymer for bioplastics, at a rate of 90 percent.

Driving the increased demand is the fact that nonbiodegradable plastic waste is littering the planet and affecting the potential survival of many species, Wantanee stresses. “We’re trying to engineer materials that are strong when needed, but break down quickly when their useful life is over,” she says.

Fungus futures

Plastic in the waste stream is something Jariya Sakayaroj, microbiologist with BIOTEC’s Bioresources Technology Unit (BTU), knows all too well. She sees it nearly every time she wades into Thailand’s coastal areas in search of fungi that may harbor bioactive compounds to help battle heart disease, cancer, or osteoporosis. Penicillin introduced the world to fungi’s value to medicine more than 60 years ago, but only in the past 15 years have pharmaceutical companies been more aggressive in combing the planet for new fungi and bacteria.

The Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis came to Thailand in 2005 to partner with BIOTEC in the quest for new microorganisms in which valuable natural compounds might be found. It is estimated that ten percent of the world’s microorganisms and fungi can be found in Thailand, which is why Novartis and other pharmaceutical companies are interested in conducting research in the country.

“The unique ecology of mangroves, with their brackish water rising and falling twice daily, represents a particularly hostile environment for fungi, making their resilience particularly attractive to pharmaceutical companies,” says Jariya. Of the 549 high-marine fungi species known to exist in the world, 180 are found in Thailand. Forty of these are new species her marine fungi unit has discovered over the past decade.

In total, 15 BIOTEC researchers probing marine, freshwater, and forest ecosystems have studied 2,500 microbial isolates and investigated 70 pure compounds. Some of these are now in collaborative research between BIOTEC and Novartis, to screen for substances that may be effective in treating disease.

Novartis has also provided capacity-building for BTU scientists to improve systems for chemical extraction and screening of compounds, as well as to identify and isolate different strains of microorganisms. This has benefited BTU’s overall effort to more efficiently catalog Thailand’s microorganisms and identify ways to utilize them in the country’s agriculture, energy, and medical sectors.

With climate change advancing, BTU’s work is becoming more urgent, says Jariya. Only about 10 percent of the world’s estimated 1.5 million microorganisms have been identified, and she fears that many may be disappearing.

“We will never know which ones we might be losing, and the benefits along with them,” she says. “Yes, there are big changes taking place out there that we need to address, but the microscopic ones need attention, too.”

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