It should come as no surprise that genetic engineering is giving us a way to change nature in ways that would otherwise be virtually impossible if you’ve seen stories about tomatoes with a spicy kick and mushrooms that won’t brown.

Researchers from North Carolina State University (NC State), such as Rodolphe Barrangou and Jack Wang, weren’t attempting to modify a fruit or vegetable. They focused their attention and genetic engineering tools on trees, one of the many trillions of species that make up nature itself.

The two scientists’ ambitious project to improve our oxygen-providers has been in the works for more than ten years. They now have a genetically altered poplar tree to show for it. Barrangnou, Wang, and colleagues from NC State, Illinois, and China describe the process used to create this genetically modified tree, which has less lignin, a branching substance (also known as a polymer) that makes plants rigid and gives wood its hard quality, than a typical tree would. Their findings were published on Thursday in the journal Science.

According to the experts, this could be a first step in the lumber and fiber business toward fostering sustainability, which could potentially counteract climate change.

It’s not exactly a new concept to consider altering a tree’s genome for environmental reasons. Living Carbon, a San Francisco-based biotechnology startup, started introducing hybrid European poplar saplings to southern Georgia at the beginning of this year. On the other hand, since 2002, commercial plantations in China have been growing GM poplar trees.

When genetically modifying their poplar trees, Barrangou and Wang intended to concentrate on lignin because the wood of these trees is frequently used to produce pulp and paper goods as well as construction-grade lumber. Lignin is one of the many polymers found in trees. Since it makes it challenging to extract from wood materials like cellulose fibers required for the creation of pulp and paper, this material is regarded as somewhat of a waste product.

But it’s not easy to lower a tree’s lignin content; in some ways, genetically altering a plant’s genome, according to Barrangou, can be even more challenging than altering a human genome.

In the beginning, the computer generated 70,000 potential solutions including genes related to the production of lignin, but only around 5% of them would truly be useful. Out of that 5%, the researchers chose seven methods that would increase the ratio of syringyl and guaiacyl (the lignin’s building blocks) by 200 percent, increase the carbohydrate-to-lignin ratio by 200 percent, and decrease the lignin content by 35 percent compared to naturally grown poplar trees. The tree would continue to grow at the same rate.

Around 174 seedlings were planted in the greenhouse at NCSU after poplar tree cells were modified using the gene-editing technique CRISPR. After the trees had grown for six months (up to a lofty ten feet, according to Barrangou), the researchers looked at them. The altered poplars had increased up to 50 percent.

The researchers have high hopes that genetically modifying trees will eventually aid in reducing the effects of climate change. Because of their capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their wood, the plant life surrounding them, and the soil, trees are referred to as “carbon sinks”. By simply planting genetically modified trees, we could create remarkable carbon sinks all throughout the world if we could somehow accelerate this ability.