Why scientists want to help plants capture more carbon dioxide

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This article is from The Spark. It is MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. sign up to receive it in your email every Wednesday.

Hello hello!

This week in The Spark, we’re taking a look back at one of my favorite sessions from our ClimateTech conference last week, from a chapter we called “Cleaning Your Plate.”

In the session, I sat down with Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. She has been helping rice survive floods for years and now she is focusing on advanced genetics to remove carbon from farmland.

Genetics and plants

Scientists have a wide range of tools at their disposal to influence how plants grow. We have more power than ever before to influence the traits we want in crops, from standard genetic engineering to more advanced gene editing tools such as CRISPR.

Genetic tweaking is not a new concept. “Virtually everything we eat has been improved using some sort of genetic tool,” Ronald pointed out in our interview at ClimateTech, with a few exceptions like foraged blueberries and mushrooms, and wild-caught fish.

Farmers have used cross-pollinating and selective breeding for centuries to enhance certain traits in their crops. In the 20th century, researchers turned things up a notch and began using mutagenesis–using chemicals or radiation to cause random mutations, some of which were beneficial.

The difference is, in the last 50 years, genetic tools have become much more precise. Genetic engineering allowed the introduction specific genes to a target plant. CRISPR allows scientists to manipulate DNA in specific areas with a finer touch.

“What’s really amazing now is that we have more tools,” Ronald stated.

The power of precision

To understand just how powerful genetic tools can be in agriculture, take a look at Ronald’s project developing flood-resistant rice.

Rice plants grow well in standing water, but most varieties will die if they’re submerged for more than three days, which can happen often in low-lying farmland. An estimated four million tons of rice are lost each year to floods–enough to feed 30 million people, Ronald said.

Ronald and her collaborators discovered a way to flood-proof an ancient variety of rice.

Researchers were able to successfully breed the gene responsible flood-tolerance, Sub1, into popular varieties of rice using modern genetic tools, including marker-assisted breeding. Researchers compared Sub1 rice with standard varieties in controlled experiments. They grew both varieties for four months, which included a two week flood. In flooded conditions, the Sub1 gene increased rice yields by 60%.

Ronald said that the project was particularly successful because of who it helped: the poorest farmers around the world. For more on the flood-resistant rice work, check out this profile of Ronald my colleague James wrote in 2017.

Next up: carbon removal?

Ronald and I also discussed a new project she’s been working on, which is focused on using crops for carbon removal. The Innovative Genomics Institute, founded in June by Jennifer Doudna, a Nobel Prize winner and CRISPR pioneer, is leading the research.

I wrote about this project back in June when it was announced with funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Ronald, ClimateTech, guided me through the details of the project’s goal.

“The most effective and amazing carbon removal technology is photosynthesis,” Ronald said in our interview.

Plants naturally reduce carbon dioxide and turn it into complex compounds such as sugars. Many sugars produced by photosynthesis are eventually destroyed and returned to the atmosphere. Ronald and her team are determined to increase the amount of carbon in the soil. There are a few prongs in this plan.

  • Boost photosynthesis, so crops can grow more quickly and suck up more carbon.
  • Grow plants with especially long roots, so that more carbon ends up deep underground.
  • Help plants associate with specific bacteria. This one is a little more complicated. Some bacteria help trap carbon dioxide underground.

In addition to tweaking plants, researchers will work to better understand how carbon is moving through plants and the surrounding environment to see how much they’re actually helping.

Keeping up with climate

Patrick Brown, Impossible Foods co-founder, shared on the ClimateTech stage that his company is working on filet mignon, and the prototypes he’s tasted are “pretty damn good.” (MIT Technology Review)

A pair of protesters threw tomato soup on an iconic Van Gogh Sunflowers painting at the National Gallery in London. Although the painting is protected behind glass, it was not damaged. However, many climate activists have mixed feelings about this protest tactic. (Washington Post)

Snow Crab populations are plummeting. Although the drop in snow crab populations is quite alarming, it is likely that rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change are to blame. (Grid News)

Researchers launched what they’re calling the “Battery Data Genome” project to gather more information about EVs. In an effort to better understand the performance of EVs, they are asking for data from universities and national labs. (Inside Climate News)

California approved a new $140 million desalination facility in Orange County. The state has rejected similar projects in the past due to environmental concerns, even though their water crisis is worsening. (CalMatters)

– For a deeper dive on the promises and challenges of desalination and how it can fit into water supplies, check out my feature on El Paso’s water system from our Water issue last year.

If you missed it, or want to see more of what happened at ClimateTech, visit our live blogs.

Day 1: Energy systems, investing, hard-to-solve sectors, and food

Day 2: Corporate sustainability, city science, transportation, and big ideas in energy

Just for fun

Some people are mosquito magnets, and there might not be anything they can do about it.

New research, detailed in Scientific American, shows that a person’s body smell, specifically the level of carboxylic acids on their skin, is related to how attractive they are to mosquitoes.

If you are like me and always end up being the one eating at barbecues, this research could lead to better repellants.

Now I just need something to keep bonfire smoke from following me around.

That’s it for this week’s edition. As always, if you have questions or want to share suggestions for what you’d like to see in upcoming issues of the newsletter, send them my way! Next Wednesday, see you!


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