GAINESVILLE — What surrounds a single grain of pollen may be one of the world’s best, most indestructible carbon removal tools available to humankind. A University of Florida scientist will explore whether this “outer shell” can be harnessed into greater uses.
Matias Kirst, a professor of genetics and genomics in the UF/IFAS School of Forest, Fisheries and Geomatics Sciences, is leading a three-year, $1.7 million project funded as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Earthshots Initiative.
The ultimate goal of the research is to kickstart production of this outer shell, known as sporopollenin, through the plant roots, which would then release it directly into the soil.
“They call sporopollenin the ‘plant diamond’ because you can’t destroy it,” Kirst said. “This has made it incredibly difficult to study in the past. But because you can’t destroy it, it is basically a permanent way to store carbon.”
For the study, scientists will focus on the poplar tree, although the discoveries are expected to be applicable to a wide range of agronomic crops, as well.
“We already know of a few genes that seem to be important, so these are going to be our first set of targets,” said Kirst, who will collaborate with researchers at the National Research Council Canada on the project. “We will overexpress these genes in the poplar roots and see if they produce anything similar to sporopollenin.”
Kirst anticipates this first attempt will not yield “perfectly formed” sporopollenin, and the next step would involve studying individual cells that produce sporopollenin to find the missing genes.
“This single cell analysis will identify what genes are being expressed in a specific group of cells that form the sporopollenin,” he said. “And then insert those genes back into the original set to try to improve that synthesis of sporopollenin.”
If the process works, the possibilities could add up to a game-changer, Kirst said.
Previous efforts to store carbon were short- to mid-term in actual storage time,” he said. “But if plants could hold this ability to store carbon in the roots, then when those plants die, that carbon is stored in the soil forever. If applied to trees and crops widely grown, this approach would take us close to achieving the carbon dioxide removal needed to combat climate change.”
The DOE’s Energy Earthshots Initiative selected 29 projects in six areas, with the goal of advancing clean energy technologies within the decade. The six areas of research are Carbon Negative Shot, Enhanced Geothermal Shot, Floating Offshore Wind Shot, Hydrogen Shot, Industrial Heat Shot, and Long Duration Storage Shot. “Engineering Sporopollenin and its Carbon Supply” was awarded under the Carbon Negative Shot.