A new study whose findings were this week published in the Cell biotech journal adds further support to the growing body of evidence that GM crops and plants could perform a key role in ongoing efforts to combat climate change. The particular modification being studied is the development of common crop and plant varieties with much more extensive root systems. The concept is based on tweaks to the genetic code of plants that would only affect the size of their root systems and nothing else.
Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air around them to use in their energy-producing photosynthesis process. The process uses sunlight to split the oxygen and carbon atoms that combine to form C02. The oxygen is released back into the atmosphere while the carbon atoms that the plants use for their own energy needs are stored away in the root system.
The Cell study showed evidence that plants with larger root systems, which require greater quantities of carbon than normal to grow, take advantage of that by taking in more C02. That both means more harmful C02, the most abundant greenhouse gas, is removed from the air and more ‘clean’ oxygen released back into it. The hope is that replicated at scale across agriculture, parks, gardens and manmade forests, the additional volumes of C02 sucked out of the atmosphere would be enough to make a notable impact on global greenhouse gas levels.
The study, and other recent research in a similar direction, has been made possible by the discovery of a gene, EXOCYST70A3, that directly influences whether the root system of the plant it belongs to go deep or stays shallow.
The gene was discovered by research scientists at California’s Salk Institute who found that it controlled levels of the hormone auxin. It was already known that auxin was integral to most kinds of plant growth but there was no clear understanding of how exactly it influenced root architecture.
After they altered the EXOCYST70A3 gene, they found that roots grew deeper into the soil. That has opened the door to the tantalising future prospect of mass agriculture potentially being harnessed for a positive environmental role.
However, there is one major blocker to the introduction of deeper root versions of all mass crops and other common plants planted by humans. GM biotechnology is currently banned across many parts of the world, including the EU which currently has an effective moratorium in place. That’s despite the fact that many of the fears once associated with the potential repercussions of mass adoption of GM crops have been scientifically debunked.