Supercharging Plants and Soils to Remove Carbon From the Atmosphere

Plants are the original carbon capture factories—and a new research program aims to make them better ones by using gene editing. The Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), supported by a $11 million commitment from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), seeks to use CRISPR genome editing to enhance the natural ability of plants and soil microbes to both capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. Along with efforts to reduce existing sources of emissions, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) could play an increasingly important role in reducing the global impact from climate change and reversing its course, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In any discussion of CDR, it is often noted that we already have technologies that do this quite well: plants, microbes, and other living organisms, but they were optimized for a world without large amounts of excess carbon produced by human activities. The IGI project aims to enhance the natural carbon-removal abilities of living organisms to meet the scale of the climate change problem.

Over the past year, CZI has invested in the development of promising technologies to help address climate change at scale as part of an exploration of cutting-edge and emerging climate solutions, including CDR technologies. The IGI program is the latest recipient of support, and one of the first to apply CRISPR genome editing to the worldwide CDR effort.

Dr. Jill Banfield (right) working in California rice fields with her team (Bethany Kolody and Jack Kim) to analyze the soil microbes responsible for both emitting and storing carbon.

We’re excited to support the Innovative Genomics Institute’s important research into new applications of gene-editing technology,” says CZI co-founder and co-CEO Dr. Priscilla Chan. “This technology has the potential to supercharge the natural abilities of plants, enabling them to pull more carbon out of the atmosphere and store more carbon in their roots and the surrounding soil — providing a new set of innovative tools to address climate change.”

CRISPR Gene Editing Tackles Rare Diseases

Paddy Doherty remembers his father as a proud, hard-working family man who stayed physically fit for most of his life. A career in construction and various home improvement projects kept him active until his 60s, when Doherty first caught glimpses of a worrying decline in his dad’s health.

“I noticed him getting breathless on walks. He’d stop for a while and maybe make an excuse for stopping, saying, ‘Oh, isn’t that a lovely tree’ or whatever,” said Doherty, who lives in Ireland. Doctors chalked it up to angina, or chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart, symptomatic of an underlying heart problem.

But two years later, when Doherty’s father died of a sudden heart attack, the true cause was discovered: a rare disease called transthyretin (ATTR) amyloidosis, characterized by a misfolded protein that builds up in the heart and interferes with normal function.

Patients left untreated with this type of amyloidosis develop heart failure, low blood pressure, horrible bowel disturbance, and eventually become incontinent of urine and feces,” said Julian Gillmore, nephrologist and head of the National Amyloidosis Centre at University College London. “It’s a truly awful, gradually progressive disease that is ultimately fatal.”

In February last year, Doherty – now about age 65 – began to experience the same early breathing symptoms his father had had. As an avid hiker who has trekked the Himalayas, he was surprised to find himself getting winded on local hill walks. Testing confirmed that Doherty had a hereditary form of ATTR amyloidosis.

But there was one bit of good news: If Doherty had been diagnosed even a year earlier, no treatment options would have been available to him – an all-too-common situation for over 30 million U.S. patients with rare diseases. But Gillmore, Doherty’s doctor, offered him the chance to participate in an early stage clinical trial using CRISPR, a groundbreaking genome editing therapy with the potential to cure his ATTR amyloidosis in a single dose.


Nobel Chemistry Prize Awarded For CRISPR ‘NanoScissors’

A humbling lesson of science is that, even when it comes to many of humanity’s most brilliant inventions, nature got there first. The 2020 selection for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to two scientists who share credit for identifying and developing a revolutionary method of genome editing — one that has allowed researchers to modify and investigate the genomes of microbial, plant and animal cells with an ease, precision and effectiveness that would have been unfathomable even a decade ago. Yet the technology that came out of their work, revolutionary as it is, springs from an innovation that first evolved in bacteria, probably more than a billion years ago, and went unnoticed until recently.

Emmanuelle Charpentier (right) and Jennifer Doudna (left) have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their development of CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing.

Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens Institute for Infection Biology and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley have been recognized for their work on CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing — a technique routinely called CRISPR for short and often referred to as “genetic scissors.” This award marks the first time that two women have been award a Nobel Prize for science.

In a seminal 2012 paper, Charpentier and Doudna showed that key components of the ancient immune system found in bacteria and archaea could be retooled to edit DNA, to essentially “rewrite the code of life,” as the Nobel committee put it this morning.

In the eight years since, the discovery has transformed the life sciences, making genome editing commonplace in laboratories around the world. It has enabled researchers to probe the functions of genes at will, pushing the field of molecular biology ahead by leaps and bounds; to innovate new methods of plant breeding; and to develop promising new gene therapies, some now in clinical trials, for conditions such as sickle cell disease.

The Nobel committee’s selection will undoubtedly be greeted as controversial because of well-publicized disputes about the intellectual property associated with CRISPR. Virginijus Šikšnys of Vilnius University in Lithuania independently developed the idea of using these genetic features of bacteria as a genome-editing tool at about the same time as Charpentier and Doudna, and he has sometimes been honored alongside them. Two other scientists, Feng Zhang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Church of Harvard University, are also often credited as early co-discoverers and developers of CRISPR technology, and their exclusion will fuel arguments. However, no one in the scientific community would dispute that Charpentier and Doudna’s work laid the foundation for CRISPR’s prolific and game-changing use today.