Climate change poses an immediate, existential threat to our future. We face the real possibility of widespread famine, water shortages, rising oceans, epidemic disease, increasingly frequent and violent mega-storms, habitat destruction and species loss. We are already spending billions of dollars on episodic disaster relief and will spend trillions more in coming decades if temperatures keep rising. We have no time to wait: the United Nations predicts that by 2030, rising global temperatures will be beyond our control. Since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) has been steeply increasing.
While this future may feel seem bleak, there is an answer hiding in plain sight — in the biology of the plants that surround us. Today, plants have the potential to save us from climate change caused by excess atmospheric CO2. Plants already exist everywhere in the world. Every day, through photosynthesis, they remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from our atmosphere and convert it into oxygen and biomass. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies — one of the top scientific institutions in the world — has a bold idea: what if scientists could coach plants to function at the level of Olympic athletes and reach their full carbon storage potential? The team plans to utilize a natural plant material—suberin, the compound of wine corks and cantaloupe rinds—which doesn’t decompose over time. By creating plants with larger and deeper root systems that produce more suberin, scientists could coax plants to sequester significantly greater amounts of carbon than they do now, and bury it in the ground for hundreds of years to come.
The Salk Institute’s plant biology team will focus on three ways to achieve this: Directly by increasing the amount of suberin in plants; indirectly by identifying how plants can make more roots; and by developing plants to grow their roots deeper. By developing these characteristics in model plants like the feedstock crop Lotus japonicus and Arabidopsis, the weed that's the workhorse of plant biology, they will enable the plants to store massive amounts of carbon. From there, they will be able to transfer these genetic traits to six prevalent crops and work to get these plants into farmers’ fields around the globe. Based on Salk’s research models, once these plants are performing at peak levels, they could achieve a 20 to 46% reduction of excess CO2 levels every year.
The plant biology scientists at the Salk Institute, led by Joanne Chory, are known for making breakthroughs in their fields. Together with Chory, Salk faculty Joseph Noel, Joseph Ecker, Wolfgang Busch and Julie Law have already made key successes on core elements of this project. They have located single genes that regulate how deeply roots burrow into soil, they’ve identified a gene that doubles root biomass and they’ve demonstrated the ability to increase the amount of suberin in specific root cell types. The creative team has deep, hands-on knowledge of plants, complementary expertise and grit, along with a practical and ambitious workplan.
Joanne Chory is the Director of the Plant Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. She has built a career at the forefront of plant biology and is known for her decades of research on the genetic pathways through which plants adapt to changing environments. Recognized as one of the greatest scientific innovators of our time, Joanne is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a 2018 Breakthrough Prize winner, as well as winner of the 2018 Gruber Genetics Prize. She is a member of numerous prestigious scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Society of London. She has also been a mentor for a new generation of plant biologists. This project marks the culmination of her career with an effort to save our planet. As she puts it, “I’m trying to do something now for humankind, not just to please my brain or follow a scientific curiosity. I have two children, so I want to leave the world a better place.”
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Salk Institute researchers have discovered a gene that determines whether roots grow deep or shallow in the soil. These findings, published July 11, 2019, will allow researchers to develop plants that can help combat climate change as part of Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative.
Joanne Chory is tackling climate change as a biologist: by engineering plants to grab much more carbon from the air than they already do.
As carbon emissions continue to rise, scientists hope a new crop will help fight climate change.