Why scientists want to help plants capture more carbon dioxide

This week in The Spark, we’re taking a look back at one of my favorite sessions from our ClimateTech conference last week, from a chapter we call “Cleaning Your Plate”.

In this session, I sat down with Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. She’s worked for years to help rice survive floods, and now she’s turning her attention to using advanced genetics to remove carbon from farmland.

Genetics and plants

Scientists have a wide range of tools at their disposal to influence the way plants grow. From standard genetic engineering to more sophisticated gene editing tools like CRISPR, we have more power than ever to influence the traits we want in plants.

But genetic modification is nothing new. Ronald pointed out in our interview at ClimateTech, with a few exceptions like blueberries and mushrooms, and wild-caught fish.

Selective breeding and cross pollination have been used by farmers for centuries to bring certain traits to their crops. In the 20th century, researchers raised the bar and started using mutagenesis — using chemicals or radiation to induce random mutations, some of which are beneficial.

The difference is that, over the past 50 years, genetic tools have become much more accurate. Genetic engineering allows the introduction of specific genes into the target tree. CRISPR has given scientists even better access to affecting specific points in DNA.

“What’s really exciting now is that we have a lot more tools,” says Ronald.


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