Larger, deeper root systems can help store more carbon in the soil, because if the plant dies and its parts are deeper underground, the carbon in those fragments is less likely to return to the air quickly. Ringeisen says Roots is not the only potential storage option. Modified plants can also be used to make bio-oil or biochar, which can be dug deep into the ground for storage.
Daniel Voitas, a genetic engineer at the University of Minnesota and a member of IGI’s scientific advisory board, says optimizing plants for carbon offsets will be challenging.
He says the features that researchers want to change in plants are influenced by multiple genes, which can make certain acquisitions difficult. And while some plants, such as tobacco and rice, have been studied so extensively that researchers have a better understanding of how to tweak them, the heredity of others is less well understood.
Most of IGI’s initial research on photosynthesis and root systems will focus on rice, says Ringisen. At the same time, the organization will work on developing better gene-acquisition techniques for sorghum, a key crop that is particularly difficult for researchers to crack. The team hopes to eventually understand the soil microbes and potentially change them.
“It’s not easy, but we’re acknowledging the complexity,” says Ringisen. Ultimately, he hopes that when it comes to climate change, “plants and microbes and agriculture can actually be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”