Genetically engineered crops to increase carbon capture?

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Plants are like factories that naturally capture carbon. A new research program has been announced that aims to improve the natural carbon storage capacity of these plants through genetic manipulation.

The University of Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute (“IGI”) has announced a new program that uses innovative genetic engineering tools to improve plants’ carbon storage capacity. IGI is a research institute established by Dr. Jennifer Doudna, who co-developed ‘CRISPR’ technology, also called gene scissors technology. The initial program will run for three years and will receive a $11 million grant from a foundation run by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.

The study is part of an effort by scientists to find ways to capture carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere to slow climate change. A massive increase in plants’ natural ability to absorb carbon dioxide could help cool the warming planet.

While many people think of trees when they think of plants’ carbon-storage capacity, this IGI study focused on crops. IGI managing director Brad Ringeisen cited the ‘timing’ issue as the reason for the lab’s choice of crops. Trees are long-lived, allowing them to store carbon for decades or even hundreds of years, but faster-growing crops are advantageous if researchers want to speed up the testing process.

One of the main goals of the IGI study, Lingeisen says, is to make small changes to photosynthesis to make plants grow faster. Modifying the enzymes involved in photosynthesis could eliminate reactions that don’t help plants continue to store carbon, including some reactions that actually release carbon dioxide.

However, photosynthesis is not the only part of the study. This is because the carbon stored in plants is usually released back into the air after soil microbes, animals or humans eat the plants. Therefore, trapping carbon in the soil or finding other ways to store it is just as important as capturing it in the first place.

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Making the root system bigger and deeper can help store more carbon in the soil. This is because when a plant dies and a part of it remains deep in the ground, the carbon trapped in that part is difficult to quickly release into the air. Lingeisen said the options for carbon storage aren’t the only ones with roots. Genetically engineered plants can also be made from bio-oil or biochar that is injected deep into the ground for carbon storage.

It will be difficult to optimize plants for carbon removal, says Daniel Voytas, a genetic engineer at the University of Minnesota and member of IGI’s scientific advisory board.

He points out that precise genetic manipulation can be difficult because most of the traits the researchers want to modify in plants are influenced by a variety of genes. For some plants, such as tobacco and rice, various studies have already been conducted so that researchers can better understand how they are genetically engineered, but the genetics of other plants is not well known, which can make it difficult for researchers.

Lingaisen said that most of the initial IGI research on photosynthesis and the root system will focus on rice. At the same time, IGI will also focus on developing better ways to genetically engineer ‘sorghum’, a major crop that has hitherto been particularly difficult to research. Based on these studies, the research team hopes that one day, we will be able to improve our understanding of soil microbes and even manipulate the genes of those microbes.

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“It won’t be easy, but we’re going through a complicated process,” says Ringeisen. Ultimately, he hopes that when it comes to climate change, “plants, microbes and agriculture are not part of the problem, but part of the real solution.”

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