Plants in the greenhouse.

Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

Two new grants support innovative climate change-focused projects

The new Whitehead Initiative on Biology, Health, and Climate Change (WIBHC) is designed both to explore climate change’s biological impacts and spark biotechnology interventions to counter its detrimental effects. Philanthropic funders have already stepped up to help underwrite two novel WIBHC research projects.

The Institute received an anonymous $3 million grant to support the Dr. Vincent J. Ryan Orphan Plant Project. The Project seeks to bioengineer a series of under-studied food crops to be both more nutritious and more resilient to climate change than many current crops. Ultimately, it aims to enhance global food security and help protect millions of people from hunger and malnutrition. 

Jointly led by Institute Members Mary Gehring, Jonathan Weissman, and Jing-Ke Weng, the Project will capitalize on their combined expertise in plant metabolism, genetics, and genome-editing technologies to establish a new integrated approach for precision crop engineering. 

The researchers will focus on a group of plants that play an important nutritional role in Africa, Asia, and South America. These plants possess valuable traits that contribute to their ability to adapt to their environments. By exploring the molecular basis for these traits and developing genome-engineering technologies, the investigators hope to achieve two significant goals: First, improve the plants’ food-producing potential and their resilience to environmental stress. Second, develop methods for transferring the preferred traits to many other kinds of “orphan crops” and to more broadly grown crops such as corn, soybean, and rice.

In parallel, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment is underwriting a project in the  Weng lab: bioengineering plants that sequester carbon in greater amounts than they do now — and to do so essentially permanently. Grantham is funding a three-year proof-of-principle project designed to produce prototype plants. If successful, this unique sequestration approach ultimately could be applied to help reverse the increase in carbon that drives rising atmospheric temperatures.

“The emission rate of carbon from the global woody biomass due to natural decomposition is estimated to be eight times that of fossil fuel consumption,” says Weng. “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.” 



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