USA- A team of scientists  from the University of California- Davis and Berkeley- are embarking on a US$70m donor-funded initiative to block methane emissions from cattle using CRISPR tools on microbes in the cows’ gut.

The initiative “Engineering the Microbiome with CRISPR to Improve our Climate and Health,” is the largest financing effort by TED’s Audacious Project, awarded to the Innovative Genomics Institute at UC Berkely and to be headed by Professors Jennifer Doudna and Jill Banfield.

Professor Doudna lives up to the ‘audacious’ aspect of the project, having co-won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her and her colleague, Emmanuelle Charpentier’s, work in pioneering CRISPR genome-editing technology. 

Similarly, earlier this year, Banfield became the first woman to win the van Leeuwenhoek Medal for her impact on microbiology.

On the other hand, UC Davis professor, Ermias Kebreab, is an animal scientist and associate dean of global engagement at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, known for his innovative research on seaweed feed supplementation to reduce methane emissions. 

His partner and associate professor, Matthias Hess, is a microbiologist and will significantly support this ambitious project. 

This donor-funded project will be a significant addition to the work Professor Kebreab has done on methane emissions reduction. 

The award-winning scientists, Doudna and Banfield, will lead the initiative from the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) at UC Berkeley; applying CRISPR genome editing and genome-resolved metagenomics to microbiomes.

Bold climate-change goal

California has set out to reduce methane emissions by 40% come 2030 seeing that current efforts will have a visible impact on the climate within the next decade because methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long as other gases like carbon dioxide do.

Studies show that cows significantly contribute to global warming and climate change through their methane emissions coming from gas-producing microbes in the gut. 

Therefore, engineering these microbes to produce less methane could be the key to limiting emissions before the cattle burps it out.

We’re trying to come up with a solution to reduce methane that is easily accessible and inexpensive, without restrictions or limitations, and that can be made available not only to California but globally,” said Hess.

According to Doudna, “CRISPR is an editor for the genome. It’s a way of changing the code of life in a precise fashion. With CRISPR, we can literally alter a single letter in DNA all the way up to a large segment of that text.”

Upon the development of the groundbreaking solutions, the UC Davis scientists intend to deliver oral treatments to calves to dictate their microbial systems early and reduce methane emissions for the rest of their lifetimes. 

This process is currently hypothetical but early studies point to it becoming a global practice. 

Engineering microbes directly where they live, without the need to isolate them, has not been done yet because there is no tool to do it. Now, with UC Berkeley, we will be developing those tools,” said Kebreab.

University of California, President Michael V. Drake, recognizes the impact of philanthropic partners towards advancing research in climate change correction. 

This cutting-edge initiative will harness the University of California’s research prowess to solve real-world problems in areas that affect us all: sustainability and health,” says President Drake.

However, scientists need to be careful when using CRISPR, because the genetic text they alter is bound to affect future generations of the species. 

On the flip side, I do worry that the use of CRISPR and other technologies could get ahead of themselves,” Professor Doudna warned. 

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