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.”

Mass Extinction

Algae and bacteria are normal parts of a healthy freshwater environment, but sometimes they can grow out of control and deplete the water of oxygen, creating ‘dead zones. This tends to happen with global warming, deforestation, and the rush of soil nutrients into waterways, which can feed microbes. All three of these factors are in play today, which is why we are probably seeing increases in toxic blooms already. Considering what’s happened in the past, that’s a disturbing sign.

According to soil, fossil, and geochemical data from the Sydney Basin, researchers think the spread of microbes in the wake of the Permian extinctionwas both a symptom of continental ecosystem collapse, and a cause of its delayed recovery.” Volcanic eruptions in the Permian first triggered an accelerated and sustained rise in greenhouse gas emissions. This caused higher global temperatures and sudden deforestation due to wildfires or drought.

Once the trees were gone, it wasn’t long before the structure of the soil began to erode, and its nutrients slipped into freshwater ecosystems. For more than three million years, Earth’s forests struggled to recover. The Sydney Basin was instead littered with lowland ecosystems that “were regularly inundated by stagnant, fresh/brackish waterbodies hosting thriving algal and bacterial populations“, the authors write. In turn, these persistent dead zones prevented the reestablishment of important carbon sinks, like peatlands, and slowed down climate and ecosystem recovery.

This major episode caused vast amounts of dust and sulfate aerosols to rise into the atmosphere, but compared to volcanic activity, the meteorite only caused a modest increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature, not a sustained one. As such, freshwater microbes only seemed to undergo a short-lived burst after the extinction event. Unfortunately, that’s very different from what occurred during the Permian extinction and what is happening today.

For instance, the researchers note that the “optimal temperature growth range” of these harmful algae in freshwater environments is 20-32 °C (68-89.6 °F). That range matches the estimated continental summer surface air temperatures for the region during the early Triassic. That range is what’s projected for mid-latitude continental summer surface air temperatures in 2100. Scientists are noticing other similarities, including an increase in forest fires and the subsequent destabilization of soils.

The other big parallel is that the increase in temperature at the end of the Permian coincided with massive increases in forest fires,” says geologist Chris Fielding, also from the University of Connecticut. “One of the things that destroyed whole ecosystems was fire, and we’re seeing that right now in places like California. One wonders what the longer-term consequences of events like that as they are becoming more and more widespread.

The good news is that this time many of the changes are in our control. The bad news is that whatever happens next is our own fault. “The end-Permian mass extinction event took four million years to recover from,” Fielding says. “That’s sobering.”

Source: https://www.nature.com/
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