Harnessing the power of plants to fight climate change
In November of 2017, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego launched the Harnessing Plants Initiative in an effort to exploit the natural ability of plants to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and combat climate change.
The Salk team, led by executive director Professor Joanne Chory, was granted $35 million last week through The Audacious Project at the TED 2019 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Every year plants and other photosynthetic organisms take up an incredible amount of CO2 – like twentyfold more than we ever put up when we burn fossil fuels – but then at the end of the growing season most plants just die, and they decompose, and it goes back up as CO2. That’s been a real problem,” Professor Chory told WIRED at the TED conference.
According to the Salk Institute, plants capture 746 gigatons of CO2 and then release 727 gigatons of CO2 back into the atmosphere on a yearly basis. This natural system would work perfectly well if not for an additional annual contribution of 37 gigatons of CO2 from human activities.
The researchers aim to engineer plants that can take up more CO2 and also store it for much longer in the soil.
“There are a lot of geoengineering efforts to come up with ways of pulling carbon dioxide out of the air,” said chemical biologist Joseph Noel. “Plants do this anyway, so why not try a biological solution as well.”
Plants have roots made of a protective substance called suberin, which is the same material as the cork in a wine bottle and is very effective in capturing carbon. If the world’s crop plants were modified to have larger and deeper roots, the CO2 may remain buried in the dirt for hundreds of years as opposed to being released after fall harvest.
“We don’t want to change photosynthesis, because plants are already so good at it,” said Professor Chory. “But we want them to make bigger roots and deeper roots with more suberin. We think we can get them to make 20 times what they make now pretty easily.”
According to WIRED, the team believes that their method has the potential to reduce annual CO2 emissions by 20 to 46 percent.
“These plants will be stronger and more sustainable,” said Professor Chory. “The old adage is, feed the soil not the plant.”
Currently, the researchers are experimenting with ways to engineer crop plants with increased suberin and root systems that are bigger and grow deeper into the ground.
The team is working as quickly as possible. Beyond the swift action needed to mitigate climate change, Professor Chory is suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
“My days are going to be numbered in a way that I can see,” she told WIRED. “So that gives me a sense of urgency.”
Salk President Rusty Gage expressed his gratitude for Professor Chory’s work and leadership.
“Joanne’s passion and commitment, as well as her decades of research into the biology of plants, has set the foundation for this revolutionary and ambitious approach,” said Professor Gage. “We are immeasurably proud of her and the entire Salk plant biology team for taking such a leadership role in combating climate change.”
For more information on the Harnessing Plants Initiative, check out this video.
Interested in learning more fascinating facts about plants? Head on over to the PlantSnap blog!
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