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More Powerful Enzymes Could Help Plants Save the World from Climate Change

Stronger plants could make for a carbon sequestration strategy within reach of everyone.

by Meredith Rutland Bauer
Nov 17 2016, 7:00pm

The Amazon. Image: Neil Palmer/CIAT for Center for International Forestry Research

Saving the planet from climate change takes efforts on two fronts: Limiting the amount of carbon dioxide people add to the atmosphere, and eliminating the greenhouse gasses that have already been emitted. A new study claims to have an answer for how we can do the latter.

A team of scientists from the US Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, Germany, have developed a method to help eliminate more carbon dioxide by boosting plants' ability to change the warming gas, according to a study published today in Science. The study lays out the strategy of using highly efficient enzymes and adding them to plants, according to a release.

"We had seen how efforts to directly assemble synthetic pathways for CO2-fixation in a living organism did not succeed so far," Tobias Erb of the Max Planck Institute, who led the study, said in a statement. "So we took a radically different, reductionist approach by assembling synthetic principal components in a bottom-up fashion in a test tube."

Quick botany primer here: Plants use carbon dioxide in the photosynthetic process to produce sugar for energy. Oxygen is a waste product of the process, which is doubly helpful for humans.

If it works in living plants, it would present a carbon sequestration strategy that's more in the reach of normal people

But since the enzyme plants use in photosynthesis is relatively slow, researchers came up with a mix of enzymes they state will improve plants' ability to change carbon dioxide into sugar compounds. The new compounds were found to convert carbon dioxide much faster than the enzyme found in plants when tested in an isolated lab dish.

The discovery is important because, if it works in living plants, it would present a carbon sequestration strategy that's more in the reach of normal people. While methods do exist to trap carbon dioxide underground and research is being done to store it in ocean water, right now the best course of action most people have to do this is to simply plant trees.

While plants have traditionally provided a balance for Earth's carbon dioxide-exhaling animals, plants haven't been powerful enough to filter out enough greenhouse gases to prevent warming since the Industrial Revolution, the study stated.


"Apart from the pathway's potential application to equip plants with better photosynthetic capabilities, it could be used in systems to create carbon-based feed for cattle, or even to design desirable chemical products," authors said in a statement.

However, the process hasn't been used in a living organism yet, the release stated, so the process will continued to be researched before it is considered for use in forests and fields.

"In the longer term, we hope to expect to see these test-tube results yield a new generation of real bioproducts delivered to address critical energy and environmental challenges," Yasuo Yoshikuni, the head of the DNA Synthesis Science group at the Department of Energy, said.