Jennifer Doudna, 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “molecular scissor”, works on a gene-editing system to create carbon-hungry plants

Casey Crownhart

The Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), a research group in Berkeley, California, founded by CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, has announced a new program to use the revolutionary genetic modification tool on plants to increase their aptitude for carbon storage. The initial program will run for three years and is funded by a $ 11 million grant from the Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Foundation.

The research is part of the scientists’ efforts to suck up carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere in order to slow climate change. Increasing plants’ natural abilities to absorb it could, if done on a large enough scale, help reduce peak temperatures in a warming world..

While many people associate carbon capture with trees, IGI research is focusing on agricultural crops. The choice is primarily a matter of timing, says Brad Ringeisen, executive director of IGI. Trees may have long lifetimes that allow them to lock in carbon for decades or even centuries, but most crops grow faster, allowing researchers to speed up the testing phase..

One of the primary goals of the IGI’s work will be to modify photosynthesis so that plants can grow faster, says Ringeisen. By altering the enzymes involved, researchers could eliminate side reactions that deplete energy, including some that actually release carbon dioxide.

But photosynthesis is only half the story, because carbon in plants usually returns to the air after plants are eaten by soil microbes, animals or people.. Keeping carbon in the soil, or finding other ways to store it, is at least as important as capturing it right away.

Systems that work on the roots can store more carbon in the soil, because if a plant dies and parts of it are deep underground, the carbon contained at its bases is less likely to return quickly to the air. Roots aren’t the only option, says Ringeisen. The modified plants could also be used to produce bio-oil or biochar, which can be pumped deep for storage..

Optimizing plants for carbon removal will be a challenge, says Daniel Voytas, a genetic engineer at the University of Minnesota and a member of the IGI Scientific Committee. “Many of the traits to be altered in plants are influenced by multiple genes,” he says, “and can make it difficult to intervene precisely.” And while some plants, such as tobacco and rice, have been studied so thoroughly that researchers know how to modify them, the genetics of others are much less understood.

Most of the initial IGI research on photosynthesis and root systems will focus on rice, Ringeisen says. At the same time, the institute will also work on developing better genetic modification techniques for sorghum, a staple crop that has always remained “obscure” for researchers.

The team hopes to understand and potentially alter soil microbes as well. “It’s not easy because we are faced with complex situations,” says Ringeisen. The hope is that in the face of a major problem such as climate change, “plants, microbes and more generally agriculture may actually be the right answer”.

Image: Innovative Genomics Institute

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