Genetically modified plants to fight CO2

 By Livia Formisani

Plants are our main ally in the fight against climate change. But could they do more? For instance, could they neutralize higher amounts of CO2? Researchers at California’s Salk Institute think so and they’re fighting against time to get their CRISPR-edited seeds to farmers around the globe…

One trillion trees. That’s the amount we would need to offset our carbon footprint and remove excess emissions from the atmosphere, according to a recent study. But even if it was possible to plant that many trees – roughly a third more than the world currently has – they would still need decades to grow.
Of course, the world doesn’t have that much time to stop global warming. That is one of the reasons most environmental efforts have been focusing on fighting deforestation instead.
Scientists at California’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies examined the climate change problem from a different angle: what if we could genetically modify common crops to absorb higher amounts of CO2?

Options available so far

Its Harnessing Plants Initiative is set out to do exactly that. By using CRISPR gene editing in combination with traditional cultivation methods, it aims to modify six fundamental crops – wheat, corn, cotton, soybean, rapeseed, and rice – allowing them to store higher volumes of CO2. It does so, in particular, by boosting the crops’ root systems to increase their amounts of suberin, a cork-like substance they naturally produce, which acts as a natural storage device for carbon.
Suberin is highly resistant to degradation, and by storing carbon in the ground, where it decays very slowly (over hundreds of years) after the plant’s death, it makes the soil more fertile, reducing the need for tilling and fertilizers. In addition, the project team is focusing on increasing the stress resistance and adaptability of the crops for them to withstand harsher weather conditions and grow despite climate change.

Setting goals at a global scale

The beauty of this idea relies on its striking simplicity. Common crops not only grow much quicker than trees, they are cultivated on a global scale and don’t require new infrastructure. This means leveraging existing agricultural land in a scalable win-win solution that offers produce and offsets emissions at the same time – achieving up to 46% reduction of excess CO2 levels every year.
The project, developed by a team of geneticists and biologists led by Professor Joanne Chory, is already approaching its testing phases, after having shown promising early results. So much so, in fact, it earned a $35 million TED Audacious grant in April 2019 and an invitation for Chory to present at the 2019 annual TED Conference.
The final goal of the Harnessing Plants Initiative is to develop “ideal plants” whose seeds would be distributed to farmers around the world. While it is difficult to forecast the interplay of biological, economic and social variables at play in their further distribution, the initiative offers a bold and simple solution with a huge potential to affect climate change.
And there is more. Moving forward, the project will also focus on seagrass varieties in aquatic environments, which are decreasing in number every year due to the rising sea temperatures. Underwater carbon sequestration by plants represents a crucial carbon sink, one which is already the focus of a number of restoration initiatives around the world, including Apple’s mangrove restoration project in Colombia.

READ MORE: New trees in the rainforest by Nicholas Newman

about the author
Livia Formisani