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Genes: The Building Blocks of Climate Action

What happens when revolutionary gene editing technology is applied to human health and climate? Ahead of Aspen Ideas: Climate, we caught up with Brad Ringeisen, Director of the Innovative Genomics Institute, about using CRISPR for climate change, how biotechnology can help feed the world, and why plants are carbon capture superstars.

  • February 1st 2024

The Innovative Genomics Institute was founded by Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna, who is best known for her groundbreaking development of CRISPR as a genome-engineering technology. Can you walk us through how your work at IGI applies CRISPR innovations to climate change?

CRISPR is a relatively simple and straightforward technology that enables researchers to directly edit or modulate the function of DNA sequences in virtually any organism. So from the onset, CRISPR genome editing promised to revolutionize basic biological research as well as enable a broad range of applications in biotechnology, medicine, and agriculture.

Specifically related to climate, at the IGI we focus our plant and microbial research towards the multiple facets of climate change, including climate resilience and mitigation. This is important because we are already experiencing the effects of extreme climate events, such as drought, floods, temperature extremes, fire, and the rise of pests and disease. We have to be ahead of the curve preparing the next generation of high yielding crops that will feed the world, that are adapted and resilient to these extreme conditions we are encountering right now, and that are predicted to intensify in the coming years. We also have to understand what kinds of organisms facilitate nutrient cycling, and how they contribute to rapid soil and habitat regeneration following extreme weather events, so we know what knobs to turn for any desirable environmental outcome. These are urgent needs that we are trying to address.

On the other side of the equation, genome editing can also help reduce the environmental burden of agriculture. For example, livestock and rice systems are major contributors to the total anthropogenic methane emissions. Fertilizers, although necessary for achieving maximum crop yields, can be extremely polluting to the environment. The IGI supports research on both plants and microbes to improve nutrient utilization and modulate greenhouse gas emissions from crops and enteric fermentation from livestock, thereby improving the sustainability of agricultural systems.

Finally, we are developing technology to revert the damage that has already been done, going beyond net zero emissions and aiming for carbon removal. We have projects that leverage plants and microbes' natural ability to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and stably store it in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years, and we are also looking at how to improve soil health and fertility alongside soil’s carbon storage capacity, so it’s a win-win for climate.

There’s an explosion of technologies looking to manage emissions through carbon removal, sequestration, recycling, you name it. Your research largely looks at plants — the original carbon capture superstars. What makes plants such promising subjects for gene editing?

A key outcome of COP28 last December was a commitment to scale carbon removal. This was the first time that removal, and not just emissions reduction, was part of the agreement among the world’s nations on collective action to address climate change. There is a subtle but important distinction there.

Currently, human activity pumps some 38 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. We will need to sequester 1 billion tons (or 1 gigaton) of carbon every year by 2030 for countries to have a shot at limiting climate warming to the target 1.5°C rise above pre-industrial levels. This is a hugely ambitious goal, and if we are to have a shot at achieving it, we will need to rely on a broad portfolio of technologies and pursue multiple solutions at the same time.

We have been growing plants and improving them genetically to our benefit for millennia, for food, medicine, fuel, and shelter. It just makes sense that we are now looking at growing plants to store the excess carbon from anthropogenic activity. 

Plants have the natural ability to harness solar power to capture atmospheric CO2 and store carbon in the form of biomass, both above and below ground. Plants are living things that can reproduce and multiply, and are therefore naturally scalable and renewable. 

With CRISPR, our capacity to accelerate plant genetic improvement is incomparably faster and more precise than using traditional plant breeding methods, and even older biotech methods. We can reiterate on our progress within one growing cycle, so when one crop variety becomes obsolete we can plant the next generation of improved crops without missing a beat. There is no need to wait 10 years to develop the next crop variety. The infrastructure and know-how for growing plants is widespread and accessible in every corner of the world. 

We have been growing plants and improving them genetically to our benefit for millenia, for food, medicine, fuel, and shelter. It just makes sense that we are now looking at growing plants to store the excess carbon from anthropogenic activity.
Brad Ringeisen

There are plenty of mixed emotions around gene editing, ranging from awe and hope to incredulity and fear. Help us unpack that — what are some misconceptions that people hold around technology like CRISPR, and how do you navigate those especially in the climate space?

I lived in DC for many years and enjoyed visiting the Library of Congress. Among the many inspiring quotes on the wall there is one that always stuck with me: “Knowledge is power.” I believe that the more people know and understand science, the less they fear. IGI’s communications team does a great job communicating science to the broader public and educating about CRISPR and how it can be used to solve some of society’s greatest challenges. 

IGI’s Public Impact team is committed to engaging stakeholders from multiple sectors of society in all the research we do. The more stakeholders are included in the entire process, the more empowered they feel, and that's important because we don't want to impose a technical solution that is not welcome. Our goal at the IGI is to develop solutions that are affordable and accessible, that actually address the problem for the people who can most benefit. On the health front, CRISPR has the enormous potential to cure diseases (like we are already seeing with sickle cell disease) and improve diagnostics and provide treatment options to orphan and rare diseases. The IGI is making great strides and recently published a plan to deliver genome-editing therapies at affordable prices. We believe those efforts will resonate and translate into broader societal acceptance of genome editing technology. 

On the climate front, CRISPR is equally as promising. We understand that past genomic technologies used in agriculture were not equally as transparent and did not include all stakeholders in the process. The extensive regulatory burdens meant that only the very rich corporations could afford using them, and this exclusivity created suspicion, doubt, and ultimately fear. We don't want that for CRISPR. 

The IGI works very closely with regulators to educate them on what it means for a plant to be edited. We hold workshops in which regulators from around the world edit organisms in the lab themselves. They can see first hand that an edited plant can be exactly the same as one generated through traditional breeding, it just didn't take 10+ years to get there. 

We are developing partnerships with agricultural institutes around the world to work side by side, developing crop varieties that support the demands of the local communities which they serve. We also want to develop capacity locally through scientific exchange programs. By arming people with knowledge, they are empowered to make better informed decisions for themselves.

Tell us about your ultimate vision with applying biotechnology to climate and agriculture. What does success look like?

The “Innovative” in our name means that we are not only working on what is possible now, we are constantly looking ahead, figuring out ways to make possible the impossible. For example at the IGI we are committed to removing the bottlenecks for editing crops, developing more efficient editing protocols and technology for accessing hard to transform plants. We are working on developing new delivery methods to deliver those editing reagents to specific tissues and cell compartments, for even safer and more precise editing outcomes. We are developing cutting-edge technology to be able to engineer microbial communities in their natural context to promote the establishment of beneficial microbes that will stabilize carbon in the soil and prevent methane emissions into the environment. We are also working on the next wave of nucleases, so every academic lab or small business can develop edited crops free of IP constraints, for the true democratization and accessibility of genome editing technology.

Success will come in multiple forms. It will be the ability to edit plants rapidly and more efficiently to fulfill the needs of farmers in low- and middle-income countries and provide food security to communities that are most affected by climate change. Success will also come in the form of crops that are better for the environment, that use less resources, less land, less water, less fertilizer and provide environmental benefits alongside economic benefits for farmers. Success will be developing livestock and rice systems that emit less methane into the atmosphere. Success will be being able to harness the power of plants and microbes to continue to sustain us, reversing the damage that we have caused to the environment by removing permanently excess GHG from the atmosphere, improving our soils, and leaving behind a healthier planet. 

And of course, because we are data-driven scientists, “ultimate” success will need to be quantifiable. We are partnering with organizations around the world to field test our products at scale, and we are also investing in technology that will enable precise quantification of outcomes, such as how much carbon is actually being stored in the soil, and how much emissions reduction is being achieved. 

The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Digital Editor and Producer, Aspen Ideas

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