Grantham Foundation underwrites ambitious project on bioengineering plants to sequester more atmospheric carbon
Plants are highly effective at capturing atmospheric carbon, one of the major contributors to the temperature increase driving global climate change. But when plants die and decay, much of that carbon is again released into the atmosphere.
Whitehead Institute Member Jing-Ke Weng has conceived of a way to bioengineer plants so that they keep a significant portion of their carbon locked up, essentially permanently. If successful, the approach could be translated into practical applications that help reverse the increase in carbon that has prompted rising atmospheric temperatures.
Seeing great potential in Weng’s concept, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment is underwriting a pioneering, three-year proof-of-principle project designed to produce prototype plants.
“The emission rate of carbon from the global woody biomass due to natural decomposition is estimated to be eight times the emission rate of carbon from fossil fuel consumption,” says Weng, who is also an associate professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Thus, while it is an extraordinarily ambitious goal, if humanity can plant new forests and crops bioengineered to accumulate decay-resistant biomass equivalent to 15 percent of the current global woody vegetation, we will be able to achieve negative carbon emission.” Compared to other carbon sequestration technologies, Weng notes, plant-based carbon fixation technologies can be scalable with very minimum inputs and maintenance. Moreover, he explains, “The resulting decay-resistant biomass could either be buried in place or used for industrial purposes such as building material or other products.
The carbon fixed in plants is primarily stored in the form of two biopolymers (polysaccharides and lignin) that are subject to decay. However, plants also produce a small quantity of other biopolymers that are naturally more resistant to degradation and that could be bioengineered to sequester greater amounts of carbon. Sporopollenin is one such polymer; its extreme inertness makes it an attractive target for engineering plants as a permanent carbon sink.
While in natural plants, sporopollenin is only produced in reproductive tissues and accounts for a tiny fraction of the total biomass, the Grantham-funded project aims to bioengineer plants that hyperaccumulate sporopollenin in non-reproductive tissues.
“Whitehead Institute is passionately committed to applying our knowledge, tools, and capacity for innovation to helping protect human health from emerging climate challenges,” says Institute director Ruth Lehmann. “This project is an example of the high-risk/high-reward work that needs to be done. And the Grantham Foundation’s support represents the kind of large, up-front investments in foundational and translational research that federal agencies, corporations, foundations, and independent philanthropists must make if we, collectively, are to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.
“We are extraordinarily grateful for the Grantham Foundation’s support for pioneering science,” she stated.
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment was established in 1997 by Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham. Jeremy is co-founder and chairman of investment management firm GMO, LLC, and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2016, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for leadership in climate change activities; and, with Hannelore, received the Carnegie Medal for Philanthropy in 2017.
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