These scientists want to capture more carbon with CRISPR crops
The research is part a growing effort of scientists to find ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to slow climate change. If done on a large scale, increasing the natural ability of plants to absorb carbon dioxide could help lower peak temperatures in a warmer world.
While many people associate carbon capture and trees, IGI research is focusing more on agricultural crops. Brad Ringeisen is the executive director of IGI. He says that timing is key to this decision. While trees may have a long life span that allows them to store carbon for decades, or even centuries, most crops grow faster and allow researchers to speed up the testing process.
The primary goal of the IGI research will be to improve photosynthesis so that plants grow faster, Ringeisen states. Researchers could reduce energy-consuming side reactions by altering enzymes, including those that release carbon dioxide.
But photosynthesis is only half of the story. The carbon in plants often returns to the atmosphere after it has been eaten by soil microbes or animals. It is just as important to keep carbon in the soil or find other ways to store it.
Larger, deeper root systems can help store more carbon in the soil, because if a plant dies and parts of it are deep underground, the carbon in those pieces is less likely to make its way back into the air quickly. Ringeisen states that roots are not the only storage option. Modified plants can also be used to make biooil or biochar. These can be pumped deep below for storage .
It will be difficult to optimize plants for carbon removal, says Daniel Voytas ,, a genetic engineer at the University of Minnesota. He is also a member of IGI’s scientific advisory board.
Many traits that researchers wish to alter in plants can be influenced by multiple genes. This can make it difficult to edit the genetics precisely, he states. While some plants, such as tobacco and rice have been extensively studied, researchers are not able to fully understand the genetics of other plants. The IGI’s initial research into photosynthesis and root systems will be primarily focused on rice, Ringeisen said. The institute will also be working on improving gene-editing techniques for the staple crop sorghum. This has been a difficult crop for researchers to crack. The team hopes to eventually understand soil microbes and possibly alter them. “This isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.” Ringeisen said. Ultimately, he hopes that when it comes to climate change, “plants and microbes and agriculture can actually be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”
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