Scientists at the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) have discovered a way to genetically enhance crops to make them capture larger quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.
Plants naturally capture carbon dioxide and release oxygen, but in this new research program, gene editing may allow them to consume more of the greenhouse gas.
IGI, which is founded by CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna and is a research group in Berkeley, California, has officially announced that it will be using the gene-altering technology to boost the carbon capture potential of different plant species.
The program is scheduled to last for three years and has already been backed by the Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s foundation with an $11 million grant.
This new feat comes amid growing efforts by scientists, environmentalists and engineers to come up with ways to suck existing CO2 directly from the atmosphere in an attempt to mitigate the climate crisis.
Hopes are that, if implemented at scale, modifying the genes of crops to ensure they can absorb more carbon may help bring global temperatures down, or by the very least, slow down the rate at which they are rising.
Other groups, including US startup Living Carbon, have placed their focus on trees and are working on ways to enhance those.
The IGI work, however, is centered on agricultural crops, as their shorter lifetimes and faster growth rates enable scientists to speed up the testing process.
One of the main objectives of the research program is to enhance the plants’ photosynthesis, which would allow them to grow faster.
And another has to do with preventing the CO2 captured by the plant during its lifetime from being released back into the atmosphere after the plant has died and been consumed by microbes, animals or people.
A possible solution to this problem would be larger and deeper root systems, as the roots can keep the carbon stored underground with a lesser likelihood of it being released into the air even after the plant dies.
Initially, most of IGI’s research will be on rice cultures, but the program will also dedicate some of its time and resources on creating better gene-editing tools for sorghum, which is a staple crop that has thus far been especially difficult for scientists to figure out.