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Gene-edited crops for carbon capture

Genetically modified plants of the future will be able to filter and store carbon from the atmosphere.
Photo: Brad Collis

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia is an industry initiative established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate and decision-making about, gene technology.

With the help of CRISPR  gene-editing technology, genetically modified plants of the future will be able to filter and store carbon from the atmosphere.

Research to help agriculture adapt to climate change and improve carbon sequestration is being led by the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), founded by Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna. The research program is supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with US$11 million in funding.

The IGI program has three working groups, each of which is focused on a different stage in the journey carbon takes from the atmosphere into the soil. This includes: (1) sequestration of atmospheric carbon; (2) flow of carbon to plant roots and root secretions; and (3) retention of carbon in the soil.

The IGI started with rice as the model organism, and also sorghum due to its deep roots, suitability as a livestock feed, above-ground biomass and bioenergy potential.

“We really see this potentially blooming out into a lot of different areas to really have global impact,” says IGI executive director Dr Bradley Ringeisen.

The IGI has designed a program that looks at every single possible touchpoint along the carbon cycle in agriculture, he says.

The first step is to use genetic techniques to change the process of photosynthesis. Using a high-throughput screening platform, researchers hope to improve photosynthesis by 30 to 50 per cent.

The second part of the process involves research into plant carbon flow – specifically, enhancing root depth and ensuring the sequestered carbon has somewhere to go. More than 40 per cent of the root’s dry mass is made up of pure carbon, making root mass an essential attribute.

The third step deals with capturing the carbon that leaves the roots to look at how the carbon flow into the soil works. The IGI is working to reconstruct the genomes of the organisms that are actively taking out the carbon that the plant is making.

“We’re hoping that the IGI can be the hub to help advance technologies that promote a net-zero farm,” Dr Ringeisen says. “This is the future.”

Fact sheet details approved GM crops

An updated fact sheet outlining commercially approved genetically modified (GM) crop varieties in Australia has been released by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

New GM cotton and canola varieties make up the majority of approvals, generally offering new insect resistance or herbicide tolerance traits, or a combination of both.

The new list also includes a herbicide-tolerant GM Indian mustard approved last year and a GM safflower with a modified oil profile approved in 2018.

Gene discovery to help boost yields

A gene that plays an integral role in the production of seeds in wheat has been identified using gene-editing techniques by researchers at the UK’s John Innes Centre.

The discovery of the so-called ZIP4 gene presents an exciting new opportunity to breed high-yield, elite wheat varieties using a novel mutation of the gene, while also allowing the introduction of critically important traits such as heat resilience and disease resistance, according to researchers.

“Our study describes the identification of a gene, ZIP4, and its phenotype, responsible for the preservation of 50 per cent grain in wheat. We can now aim to identify variants of the gene with effects that give wheat yield resilience to climate change,” says research team leader Professor Graham Moore.

Researchers used CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing techniques to create a mutant plant in which theZIP4 5B gene has been deleted, leading to the loss of key functions. This mutation yielded 50 per cent fewer grains, confirming the critical role of ZIP4 5B in wheat fertility.

The research has been published in the Nature’s Scientific Reports.

Biofortified crop hub launched in UK

A new innovation hub has been launched as part of a joint initiative between the Quadram Institute and the John Innes Centre to commercialise crops, foods, feed and fodder with higher levels of nutrients.

The Biofortification Hub combines expertise in soil, crop genetics, food innovation and human health and nutrition. It will work closely on the biofortification of food and feed crops with farmers, food producers and retailers across the supply chain.

“Biofortification provides the opportunity to improve the nutritional properties of foods through both traditional and modern approaches. Improving the nutritional quality of foods is essential as we look to offer enhanced dietary choices that will increase the healthy lifespan of individuals,” says Professor Martin Warren, chief scientific officer at the Quadram Institute and hub leader.

Hub co-leader Professor Cathie Martin says biofortification used to be considered necessary only for developing countries with extensive ‘hidden hunger’. But biofortification in a much broader context must now be considered a priority for the UK to maintain the health of consumers,” she says.

Six innovation hubs have been launched as part of a new Diet and Health Open Innovation Research Club (OIRC) created by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, with support from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Innovate UK and the Medical Research Council.


Current GM plants authorised for release into the environment (GMO Register and licences for commercial releases)

The Future of Food—CRISPR Crops That Capture Carbon

Gene-editing discovery yields high promise for wheat fertility in a changing climate

Diet and Health innovation boosted by new funding and partnership

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