Genetically modified plants could help get to the root of climate change

There’s not going to be one singular solution to solve the problem of climate change. In reality, it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach encapsulating everything from reducing our individual carbon footprints to potentially more drastic solutions such as geoengineering. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California have another approach to add to the pile — and it’s one that involves genetic modification.

Salk researchers have been investigating ways to engineer plants so that they grow with more robust and deeper roots that are capable of storing increased amounts of carbon underground for longer; thereby reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. This is based on their discovery of a gene which dictates the depth to which plant roots grow in soil.

“We are very excited about our recent finding, because we have found a gene — Exocyst70A3 — and its variants that can change a shallow root system architecture, [in which] the roots grow closer to the surface of the soil, to a deeper root system architecture, [where] the roots grow deeper into the soil,” Wolfgang Busch, an Associate Professor in Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, told Digital Trends. “We also have understood to a great extent how this gene works. It changes the flow of the plant hormone auxin through the root tip. That way the roots are not as swift to sense if they don’t grow downwards. Importantly, this gene seems to only specifically change root system architecture and no other property of the plant — it is therefore a precision tool.”

Making the work particularly promising is the fact that the Exocyst70A3 gene has very closely related genes in all plants. This means that this research could theoretically work with every crop plant in existence. To further develop the project, the Salk initiative will receive more than $35 million from a number of organizations and individuals.

“The next stage for this project is to translate this to crop plants that we would like to enhance in terms of root depth,” Busch continued. “Other work that we are starting is to look for other genes and their variants that increase root depth in a similar way. Having multiple genes in hand to work with to tune root system architecture will increase our ability to get to custom-tailored root systems.”

A paper describing the work, titled “Root System Depth in Arabidopsis Is Shaped by Exocyst70A3 via the Dynamic Modulation of Auxin Transport,” was recently published in the journal Cell.

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