Potential Impacts of Genome Editing on Climate Adaptation and Mitigation

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Climate change poses an enormous challenge to plant agriculture. Crops will need to endure weather extremes, including heat, drought and excess precipitation. New pathogens will also emerge as ecosystems adapt to new climate norms and the geographic range of insects and fungal and bacterial pathogens are altered. There is clearly a need for new crop varieties that can withstand these abiotic and biotic challenges. Further, these new varieties will need to rely on fewer inputs, such as water and fertilizer, as such inputs will become increasingly costly and difficult to attain. 

In this new report from the Supporters of Agricultural Research (SoAR) Foundation, author Dr. Dan Voytas, the McKnight Presidential Endowed Professor and Director of the Center for Precision Plant Genomics at the University of Minnesota, explores those ways that current and emerging gene editing technology can accelerate plant breeding to aid agricultural adoption to a rapidly changing climate. 

Whereas some new plant varieties will help to weather the storm, others can actually mitigate the climate problem. Plants naturally fix carbon from the atmosphere, and even a modest increase in the amount of carbon that is captured by major row crops and converted to biomass equates to millions of metric tons of fixed CO2 per year. Further, if the increase in biomass occurs in the roots in the form of biomolecules that are slow to degrade, then captured carbon will only slowly be released back into the atmosphere. 

Over the past 120 years, plant breeders have made remarkable progress in developing new crop varieties with novel traits, including increased productivity.  However, the pace and scale of climate change will make it difficult for traditional breeding methods to generate the varieties needed to sustain food security and ameliorate the problem of increased CO2. New tools are available to help tackle this problem. In the past decade, powerful gene editing technologies have been developed that give us control over the plant’s genetic blueprint. Gene editing makes it possible to introduce precise changes to the plant genome, accelerating the production of new crop varieties, including those that better withstand the stresses induced by a changing climate as well as those that capture and store excess atmospheric CO2.