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 parts is less likely to quickly return to the air. Roots aren’t the only possible storage option, Ringeisen says. Modified plants can also be used to produce bio-oil or bio-char, which can be pumped deep underground for storage.
Optimizing carbon removal plants will be a challenge, he said. Daniel Wojtasgenetic engineer at the University of Minnesota and member of the IGI Scientific Advisory Board.
Many of the traits that researchers want to change in plants depend on multiple genes, which could make precise editing difficult, he says. And while some plants, like tobacco and rice, have been studied so thoroughly that researchers generally understand how to tune them, the genetics of others have been less well understood.
Much of IGI’s initial research on photosynthesis and root systems will focus on rice, Ringeisen said. At the same time, the institute will also be working to develop better gene-editing techniques for sorghum, a staple crop that researchers have found particularly difficult to crack. The team hopes to eventually understand and potentially change soil microbes.
“It’s not easy, but we manage the complexity,” says Ringeisen. Ultimately, he hopes that when it comes to climate change, “plants, microbes and agriculture may actually be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”