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Pioneering research focused on supercharging nature gets multimillion funding boost

BY Cat Corlett

By 2050, an estimated 10Gt of CO2 per annum needs to be removed from the atmosphere to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. However currently there are no proven scalable solutions to meet this challenge.

The Carbon Technology Research Foundation (CTRF) is supporting pioneering research projects involving greenhouse gas sequestration by microorganisms through to plant-based systems, having identified a gap in support for complex, cutting-edge and novel research which has the potential to be deployed globally at scale. The climate crisis is here now and the urgent need to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere must be part of the many solutions required to stabilise the climate.  

“The scale of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has created the imperative to find cost-effective and scalable solutions for their removal. Whilst our knowledge of the science and the solutions has increased by orders of magnitude, and the public and politicians are increasingly aware of the problem, not enough has been done to tackle it. Solutions based on natural removal processes make sense and show great promise,” said Founder of CTRF, Stig Arff.

“CTRF is thinking long term and understands the need to invest now to get the research done in a way that approaches and technologies can be scaled to help draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. It’s rare to have these kinds of funds dedicated to specific topics,” said Dr. Surabi Menon, Chair of CTRF’s Scientific Advisory Council, Executive Director, Partnerships at COP28  (on leave from ClimateWorks Foundation).

Three projects have been selected for a first round of support in 2023 after a robust peer reviewed process. Each was chosen due to the depth of experience of the core research team, the novel scientific approach and the significant potential for future scaling.  

The first project aims to scale nature’s solution to methane uptake by engineering methanotrophic bacteria with at least a 10-fold enhanced consumption rate at near-ambient concentrations.

Project lead Mary Lidstrom Professor who is Emeritus of Chemical Engineering and Professor Emeritus of Microbiology at the University of Washington, Seattle said “Methane is 34 times more potent in its warming effects than CO2 on a 100-year timescale and 86 times more potent on a shorter 20-year timescale. What if we could remove enough methane from the air by 2050 to meaningfully contribute to vital global warming targets?

"In nature, there are bacteria that already remove methane, but this happens slowly. We aim to capitalise on these common biological processes meaning that as scientists we don't need to start from scratch and already have access to the intelligence that could allow us to engineer solutions that are scalable globally.”

A second project, led by a consortium of leading international scientists in the UK and US, leverages 13 years of successful collaborative research focused on understanding how algae removes CO2 so efficiently from the atmosphere and engineering this into plants.

This could provide a platform for large scale deployment across a range of agricultural practices for crops and other plants, enabling carbon removal at gigaton scale without raising the demands on land. 

Luke Mackinder, Professor of Plant Biology at the University of York, said "Most plants rely on CO2 moving passively into the plant, whereas algae are like a hoover going out and sucking it up. We are taking the mechanism used in algae to create a universal molecular chain that can be engineered into most plants, including trees and crops, adapting them to act like CO2 super hoovers.”

The third project to receive support is designing crops to sequester more CO2 and store it more durably in the soil. It is estimated that the total potential above and below ground biomass could amount to 6.8 Gt CO2 equivalent for the four main global crops (maize, soy, wheat and rice). For comparison, total emissions in the US in 2021 was over 5 Gt.

Professor Stephen Long (BSD/CABBI/GEGC), Ikenberry University Chair of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences, said “About half of the carbon removed from the atmosphere by our crops remains in and on the soil after harvest, for example, the roots and straw of a cereal. But most of this returns to the atmosphere as these residues decompose. Using computational design, we are identifying novel targets to modify by DNA editing to allow plants to draw more CO2 from the atmosphere and place it into residues designed to be far more resilient to decomposition in the soil.  A successful test-of-concept will identify technologies that would make croplands strong net CO2 sinks to counteract climate change and would be rapidly scalable.”  

About CTRF
The mission of the Carbon Technology Research Foundation is to light the spark of ideas that will transform our world and rebalance our climate, driving urgent action to limit dangerous global warming effects. We identify and fund the brightest and best research into new methods of greenhouse gas removal, which have their roots in nature, but which could be scaled significantly using biotechnology. Our aim is to catalyse interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge exchange, leading the way to unlock critical research, raise additional funding and ultimately develop transformational solutions.

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