Larger, deeper root systems can help store more carbon in the soil, because if a plant dies and parts of it are buried deep, the carbon in these parts is less likely to return to the air quickly. . Roots are not the only possible storage option, says Ringeisen. Modified plants could also be used to make bio-oil or biochar, which can be pumped underground for storage.
Optimizing plants for carbon sequestration will be a challenge, says Daniel Voytas, a genetic engineer at the University of Minnesota and a member of the IGI’s scientific advisory board.
Many of the traits that researchers want to alter 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 understand how to modify them, the genetics of others are less well understood.
Most of the initial IGI research on photosynthesis and root systems will focus on rice, Ringeisen says. At the same time, the institute will also work on developing better gene editing techniques for sorghum, a staple crop that has been especially difficult for researchers to break. The team finally hopes to understand and potentially alter soil microbes as well.
“That’s not easy, but we’re accepting the complexity,” Ringeisen says. Ultimately, he hopes that when it comes to climate change, “plants and microbes and agriculture can really be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”