Innovative Genomics Institute receives carbon removal research funding

photo of rice field
Innovative Genomics Institute, UC Berkeley/Courtesy
The Innovative Genomics Institute has received funding for research using CRISPR gene-editing technology to study carbon removal abilities in crop plants.

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The Innovative Genomics Institute, or IGI, will begin a research program using CRISPR gene-editing technology for carbon removal, according to a Tuesday press release.

The IGI, founded by Nobel Prize winner and campus professor Jennifer Doudna, uses CRISPR for gene editing in various areas including human health, biomedical application microbiology, agriculture and genome plant editing, according to campus professor of plant and microbial biology Krishna Niyogi. Funded entirely by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, this particular research will focus on improving the natural carbon removal ability of crop plants such as that found in rice.

“The goal is to basically combat climate change by sequestering more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via plant into soil,” Niyogi said.

Niyogi’s research centers on understanding the mechanisms of photosynthesis to make the process more efficient, which includes making precise changes to plants to promote the flow of carbon from plants into roots and soils.

Another research component involves engineering plants to have more robust root systems that can produce chemicals, which help bind particles of soils together. This is how carbon molecules added into the plant’s system can be counted and more efficient, according to Jennifer Pett-Ridge, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“That plant is able to make more mass (and) more plant material more efficiently, and that plant material will be both above ground and below ground,” Pett-Ridge said. “The whole plant works better as a carbon capturing device.”

According to Pett-Ridge, CRISPR takes advantage of the plant’s genetic versatility to manipulate the genome by shuffling genes within that plant’s genome. This differentiates it from traditional genetic modification techniques that introduce genes outside the plant’s genome and reduce concerns for adverse side effects.

Pett-Ridge said she hopes the research will expand to include more crops than rice. Although she added that the particular strain is easy to work with and fast to grow, Pett-Ridge stated it is a “springboard” for future projects involving more versatile types of grain — such as sorghum and wheat — that can be used by farmers across the world.

“In a lot of cases, people are land rich and cash poor,” Pett-Ridge said. “By creating a plant that is more resilient and has these environmental benefits but is still producing a grain that can feed people’s families, that is what we see as a win-win situation.”

The diversity of the team’s disciplines, which ranges from plant genomics to microbial metagenomics, is “novel” and “one-of-a-kind,” according to Pett-Ridge. She emphasized how getting the plant into fields in three to five years would be “revolutionary.” 

With a challenge as massive as climate change, IGI executive director Brad Ringeisen noted the importance of having a variety of approaches that can make a meaningful impact.

“Right now, agriculture is part of the problem, but we think we can turn that around and make it part of the solution,” Ringeisen said in an email.

Aileen Wu and Maya Jimenez contributed to this report.

Contact Maya Jimenez and Aileen Wu at [email protected].