As the effects of climate change become alarmingly evident with a collection of social, environmental, and economic problems, several industries and fields of science are using innovative technology to mitigate those effects. Now, one of the people who invented CRISPR gene editing believes scientists can engineer genetic code to fight it. CRISPR is an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. It is a family of DNA sequences found in the genomes of prokaryotic organisms such as bacteria and archaea.
These sequences are derived from DNA fragments of bacteriophages that infected the prokaryote and are used to find and fight off DNA from similar bacteriophages when infected. A few years ago, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier received the 2020 Nobel Prize for discovering that CRISPR can be used to enhance the ability of microbial communities in soil or water for carbon capture. In basic terms, it means if the science is just right – the entire structure of our environment can be altered to adapt to climate change.
Speaking to the MIT Technology Review, Doudna says the futuristic idea can have a potentially high impact on the planet. But the research still has a long way to go. “There’s been a lot of focus on clinical medical uses of CRISPR,” she told MIT Tech. “However, I suspect that over the next decade, when we think about global impact and impact on daily lives, that’s where the uses in agriculture and even to address climate change will potentially have a much broader impact.”
According to Futurism, scientists have been toying with the concept of using CRISPR to fight climate change for a few years. The biggest goal is to genetically enhance plants so that they can absorb carbon dioxide. In 2019, The Guardian reported that The Salk Institute for Biological Studies’ Harnessing Plants Initiative was trying to amplify the root systems of plants and their production of suberin – the protective shell responsible for storing carbon dioxide. The theory also suggests that similar processes can be used to allow living organisms to store more carbon dioxide too.
Along with amplified carbon dioxide absorption, CRISPR gene editing could also make plants more adaptable to a future that’s disrupted by climate change. This particular line of research is being conducted by scientists at the University of California Berkeley. As part of the project, they are trying to change the genetics of rice, which is a massive source of calories for people across the world, to be more resilient during droughts.
The study is affiliated with the Innovative Genomics Institute, which was founded by Doudna. However, the work is still in its very early stages and won’t be ready any time soon. In a recent interview with Time, an ecosystem scientist at the University of California at Berkeley Jill Banfield said it’s all very “blue sky” at the moment. As one of Doudna’s closest collaborators, she explained that they need to understand the pieces and how they fit together before attempting anything related to climate change.
While fighting climate change through gene editing is still some time away, CRISPR is already proving extremely versatile in the field of medicine. Scientists are excited about its potential clinical applications, and groundbreaking effects on the planet’s food supply chain. As such, their efforts to help prevent (or slow down) the ever-growing climate crisis should not be overlooked.