Photo collage of Mary Gehring, Jonathan Weissman and Jing-Ke Weng

Whitehead Institute Members Mary Gehring, Jonathan Weissman and Jing-Ke Weng


Gretchen Ertl/Whitehead Institute

Whitehead Initiative on the Biology and Health of Climate Change undertakes multifaceted project on resilient food crops

Last autumn, Whitehead Institute formally established its Whitehead Initiative on Biology, Health, and Climate Change (WIBHC). The Initiative is designed to explore the multifaceted impacts that  climate change has on biology and human health — and to spark new biomedical and biotech interventions to prevent or treat impacts that are detrimental to people. 

“We are witnessing many obvious effects of climate change, such as more powerful storms and raging wildfires,” says Institute director Ruth Lehmann. “But what will be the biological effects of climate change? What harmful impacts will it have on human health and well-being in coming decades and how will it change our biosphere? Huge segments of the world’s population will be at risk if scientists and engineers cannot develop methods for anticipating, understanding, and ameliorating climate change’s effects on human health. For that reason, we are passionately committed to applying the Institute’s knowledge, tools, and capacity for innovation to address the emerging climate-driven challenges.”
Initially, the WIBHC is pursuing work in three realms: plant biology, infectious disease, and temperature sensitive cellular processes.
Today, the Institute announced that it has received an anonymous $3 million grant supporting the Dr. Vincent J. Ryan Orphan Plant Project — research intended to bioengineer a series of under-studied food crops that will be both more nutritious and more resilient to climate change than many current crops. Ultimately, the Project aims to enhance global food security and help protect millions of people from hunger and malnutrition. 

"We are passionately committed to applying the Institute’s knowledge, tools, and capacity for innovation to address the emerging climate-driven challenges," said Institute Director Ruth Lehmann.

The Project is jointly led by Institute Members Mary Gehring, Jonathan Weissman, and Jing-Ke Weng; and it combines their expertise in plant metabolism, genetics, and genome-editing technologies to establish a new integrated approach for precision crop engineering. In a shared statement, the researchers — who are all also faculty members in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology department of Biology — observed, “Common agricultural practices around the globe that have been the lifeline to feed the world’s population may not be sustainable due to climate change. Thus, creative, challenging, and transformative approaches are urgently needed to engineer new generations of nutritious plants that are better adapted to more variable environmental conditions and degraded land.”

Their research will focus on “orphan crop” 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 growing 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.

The WIBHC is designed to leverage Institute Members’ knowledge and skills in foundational biological research to create innovative approaches to a broad array of climate change-driven challenges. In October, for example, the Institute announced that the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment would underwrite a Weng lab project to bioengineer plants that sequester carbon in greater amounts than they do now and to do so essentially permanently. If successful, this approach could be translated into practical applications that help reverse the increase in carbon that has prompted rising atmospheric temperatures.



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