Square Roots, a controlled environment agriculture (CEA) startup, recently introduced a groundbreaking program supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The program aims to demonstrate the feasibility of removing light from commercial indoor vertical farming by utilizing gene-edited (CRISPR) plants that grow heterotrophically. These plants can add biomass through carbon uptake from acetate in irrigation water, enabling growth “in the dark,” in an indoor vertical farm.
The underlying science, developed by Dr. Robert Jinkerson and Dr. Feng Jiao, involves sustainable acetate production and heterotrophic plant growth. Initial trials on lettuce and SPACE Tomatoes, edited for enhanced fruit production, are underway. The company plans to expand to higher-calorie crops like sweet potatoes and cassava in future phases.
The new approach retains the benefits of vertical farms, such as year-round production, zero pesticide use, and efficient water and land utilization; however, the system now operates with significantly reduced energy needs. This breakthrough could make indoor farming more viable and sustainable, particularly for low and middle-income countries facing climate-related risks in traditional outdoor agriculture. The reduced energy requirements directly lead to lower production costs and associated CO2e, potentially transforming the global economics of indoor farming. Currently, energy needs, driven mainly by LED grow lights, constitute 20%-40% of total costs in vertical farming.
More information is available here.
All images: Square Roots