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Luke Mackinder discusses his work to transfer the CO2 hoovering capabilities of algae into plants 

We’re at your labs at York University where you’ve spent many years studying the carbon fixation properties of algae. Tell us, why are you exploring engineering this into plants? 

Most plants rely on carbon dioxide to diffuse from the atmosphere into their plant cells so the carbon dioxide can be fixed by an enzyme called rubisco, which turns this gaseous carbon into organic carbon, which goes on to produce the food we eat or for the plant to grow. Whereas algae have evolved a mechanism so instead of relying on the diffusion, they effectively hoover the carbon dioxide out of their surrounding environment, so actively sucking up all carbon dioxide. We think there’s a huge potential to engineer this hoover type mechanism, which we also call a turbocharger of photosynthesis, into plants to really improve their photosynthesis and boost their yields and their carbon removal potential.  

“We think there’s a huge potential to engineer this hoover type mechanism, which we also call a turbocharger of photosynthesis, into plants to really improve their photosynthesis and boost their yields and their carbon removal potential.”

So what is the next step and what’s the potential?  

The real goal of the next three years is to get together a proof of concept so that by taking these parts from algae, we can engineer them into plants and see real improvements in photosynthesis. We believe we have all the parts and we have many parts in plants already, so it is now about putting them all together and testing functionality.   

One of the really exciting things about this project is that what we’re building should then be transferable or very rapidly transferable into different types of plants and also different algae which lack this efficient CO2 uptake mechanism. So, the goal is to have a proof of concept and a solution which is also universally applicable to a broad range of plants. We think improvements in CO2 uptake would really enhance carbon fixation, photosynthesis, carbon capture and yields.  

What is the potential to scale this up in the longer term?  

I think there’s huge potential. It could be potentially a real game changer in carbon removal, but also the ability to improve yields and food production could be huge. Globally there are pressures to keep producing more and more food but not have huge impacts on biodiversity and we can’t keep expanding agricultural land area.  

So having crops which are a lot more efficient will not only mean they’re fixing more carbon dioxide, but it will mean that we need the same amount or even less land to produce more food. So this could have huge biodiversity benefits and free up land which can be dedicated to other uses like carbon removal and carbon capture. There’s really strong evidence and research indicating that biological based carbon removal strategies are going to be essential if we want to reach net zero and if we want to reduce atmospheric CO2 

Crops are already fixing gigatons of carbon per year, which is vast amounts of carbon dioxide and it’s really building on that infrastructure to improve the carbon fixation out there – so adding on an extra ten, 20% to what we have in place.  

I think this scalability and potential is really exciting for this type of technology and what we’re really working on is having an approach which is universal. This would make it easy for us to engineer across different crops, trees and even algae species making it very broadly applicable which is really exciting.  

Looking at the importance of that journey and given the challenges that we are facing, how vital is early-stage funding to support this foundational research? 

I think early stage funding is critical. It’s been proven time and time again across all different scientific fields that funding for early stage discovery level research support is vital because you can’t always see the ultimate outcome of that research and it can go in many different directions and in this case, it is really essential to enable us to develop this proof of concept.  

Once you have a proof of concept or something looks very promising, it’s important to have sustained long-term funding which is driven towards a set of goals or an ultimate outcome but is guaranteed to allow research teams to build stability, to build structure, to get infrastructure and the correct expertise all in place. Then we can really focus on big goals, the grand challenges, which we’re facing not just as a research community, but as a global population.  

Could you outline the experience of the team and the collaborative culture you’re working within? 

I think it’s really important to acknowledge that our research is based on decades of prior research by international groups which have been really understanding how algae use carbon dioxide and also methods of being able to engineer algae and plants. So this is really strong basis of research.  

My lab at the University of York is part of a consortium which includes Alastair McCormick at the University of Edinburgh and Martin Jonikas at Princeton University. As a consortium we’ve been working together for over a decade and are now really understanding how algae specifically use carbon dioxide really efficiently, so this this hoover type mechanism we mentioned earlier and then working on engineering different parts into plants.  

We’ve built up new methods and approaches to be able to rapidly understand how algae function and how they use carbon dioxide. A lot of this is based around robotics and high throughput approaches where we parallelize multiple experiments by running them simultaneously and doing large screens and so we have built up this vital infrastructure and expertise which is vital. 

How exciting is it to consider what’s happening in your labs now and what that could really mean in the future?  

Biological based carbon removal solutions are super exciting and we’re incredibly excited about the potential and the impact this could have globally. So, we’ve been working as hard as we can to really understand how algae work and then also to be able to engineer this so that we know enough about the mechanisms to then be able to engineer it into plants.  

Rewinding to the wider challenge and the need for mitigation as a primary goal, why is carbon removal needed?  

Most of the consensus when we look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which can predict very accurately the type of trajectories we’re on, shows that we’re going to see global warming of at least two degrees Celsius and this is driven primarily by CO2 emissions.  

So, if we really want to keep warming below two degrees Celsius, we’re going to need some real transformational changes with emissions which our current trajectory isn’t showing. Or we’re also going to need or I should say, and we’re also going to need, carbon dioxide removal strategies. It is becoming more and more critical that we need solutions in place which are scalable. So, I think that’s why this research is important to pursue.  

How important is it to consider co-benefits and wider planetary health implications alongside CO2 removal? 

So, one of the benefits of engineering the CO2 uptake mechanism into crops is that it would improve yields. One of the big challenges we face is that we have a growing global population and we have a limited resources, so a limited amount of land. Therefore, if we can produce more food on the land we have or even reduce the amount of land we’re using, this will then enable us to minimize our impacts on biodiversity by having to recover more land, like removing forests or essential ecosystems.  

It also will potentially free up land, agricultural land, which could then be used directly for carbon removal or biodiversity. There’s also the potential to engineer this improved CO2 uptake mechanism fast growing trees and also things we call break crops which are planted in between main food producing crops which help the land recover. So break crops could improve carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere and put it into the soils and also provide products which could then be used in long term carbon storage.  

Why is this early stage funding so vital for your work? 

We should care about this type of early stage research, not just because it can prove something but because it can change the way we live and could improve the way we live now and for future generations. This is one of these moments in science and history that has the potential to transform.   

I think we’re all aware now of climate change and the impacts it can have on people’s everyday lives. We see this in the news almost daily now of flooding, heatwaves, forest fires. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that these are all being exacerbated by global warming and so we need global solutions to reduce to minimize the amount of carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere, but also to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.  

We need innovation and biology based solutions that can really start to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to support a more stable global climate even if we get to a point where we exceed the limits for carbon dioxide amounts in the atmosphere, we then wouldn’t have solutions in place where we can remove it effectively.  

How has CTRF helped? 

We wouldn’t be going ahead or definitely not at this level of pace without this funding. It’s really letting us build off of a recent and very exciting finding where we now have this parts list from algae, which is we think is really universally compatible . 

CTRF have come in and they’re funding us to go from this idea based on solid fundamental research to push it forward and within three years go for a proof of concept where we can really prove if this functions in plants. 

Once we can show that we’re seeing improved carbon or CO2 uptake in plants, there’ll be lots of opportunities for scaling up to support moving it into crops and for accelerating plant-based carbon removal.