These scientists want to capture more carbon with CRISPR crops

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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 get back into the air. Roots isn’t the only possible storage option, says Ringeisen. Modified plants can also be used to make bio-oil or biochar, which can be pumped deep underground for storage.

Optimizing plants for carbon removal will be a challenge, says Daniel Voytasa genetic engineer at the University of Minnesota and a member of IGI’s scientific advisory board.

Many of the traits researchers want to change in plants are influenced by multiple genes, which can make precise editing difficult, he says. And while some plants, such as tobacco and rice, have been studied so extensively that researchers broadly understand how to modify them, the genetics of others are less well understood.

Most of the IGI’s initial research on photosynthesis and root systems will focus on rice, Ringeisen says. At the same time, the institute will also work to develop better gene editing techniques for sorghum, a staple crop that has been particularly difficult for researchers to crack. The team also hopes eventually to understand and possibly alter soil microbes.

“This isn’t easy, but we embrace the complexity,” says Ringeisen. 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.”