BYLINE: Greg Bolt, University Communications

Newswise — EUGENE, Ore. – August 8, 2023 - A University of Oregon research team has landed a $3 million federal grant to work with Indigenous and rural communities in Oregon to find ways of reducing climate-changing carbon in the atmosphere in ways that build trust with historically marginalized groups.

The five-year grant is funded by a National Science Foundation program that focuses on what are known as the “rules of life” to better address societal challenges such as climate change, clean water, carbon capture and sustainability. The rules of life broadly refer to the complex interactions among an array of living systems of all size.

Lucas Silva, a professor of environmental studies and biology, leads the team, which includes fellow environmental studies professors Ashley Cordes and Lillian Aoki, data science research professor Jake Searcy, and biology professor Brendan Bohannan.

A first of its kind, the UO study is known as Convergence to Accelerate Research on Biological Sequestration, or CARBS, and will use Indigenous knowledge, artificial intelligence and what is known as environmental DNA, or large-scale DNA from organisms found in the environment, to guide carbon capture research and implementation.

The research will be co-produced with the Coquille Indian Tribe to explore social, ecological and genomic controls to limit the release of carbon into the air as well as the potential for increasing the amount of carbon being stored in environments from temperate forests to the estuaries of the Pacific Northwest. The study could be used a model for the nation and beyond.

“The Coquille have enjoyed a longstanding relationship with the UO. Most importantly, we understand the history of climate change and landscape indifference,” said Jason Younker, chief of the Coquille Indian Tribe and UO assistant vice president and adviser to the president on government-to-government relations. “Our hope, through this grant, is to find better ways to counteract destructive actions and do our part in combating the devastating impacts of human influence.”

Other partners in the research project include Oregon State University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, The Nature Conservancy, and the Eugene Water and Electric Board. The NSF recently announced more than $27 million in funding for 12 projects, including the one at the UO.

CARBS will use existing investments in biological carbon storage to design new field and laboratory experiments and build AI tools that will deliver the first study of Indigenous knowledge and environmental DNA.

A key feature of the project is collaborating with Native American tribes and rural communities that often have little input into large-scale efforts to rein in climate change. Rather than dictate solutions, the UO team plans to develop a range of actions so communities can choose those that match local needs and priorities.

“Effective solutions to mitigate climate change are urgently needed and require adaptive strategies implemented on immediate and long-term timelines,” Silva said. “Federal, state and local governments have made major investments in biological carbon sequestration for climate change mitigation, but these investments are often at odds with community priorities to adapt to climate-induced disturbances such as drought, wildfire, and sea level rise.”

By focusing on working landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, the UO team will devise and test new ways of reducing atmospheric carbon — through, for example, new and “rediscovered” Indigenous technologies that could improve land management, ecosystem restoration and conservation — in ways that engage diverse communities and can be presented as a range of options rather than a single, mandatory path.

Researchers also will look at using early engagement with communities to build trust, promote innovation and encourage the adoption of climate change solutions.

The research team points out that identifying the underlying principles that guide biological systems is central to understanding how life thrives or fails at the critical zone between Earth’s slow-changing crust and its dynamic atmosphere. By linking genes to the way carbon is released or stored researchers can study how complex systems develop from simple ones, which could transform the study of atmospheric carbon capture.

The National Science Foundation hopes the overall program, known as “Using the Rules of Life to Address Societal Challenges,” will lead to new ways to address climate change and other large-scale issues.

"The enormous opportunity to apply biological principles to solving the biggest problems of today is one we cannot take lightly," said Susan Marqusee, the foundation’s assistant director for biological sciences. "These projects will use life to improve life, including for many underprivileged communities and groups."