Scientists Combat Climate Change with Plants

BY ON January 17, 2018

young girl expressing wonder

Imagine a plant that can store large amounts of carbon dioxide in its roots for long periods of time; provides enough food to sustainably feed an ever-increasing population; and can adapt to a variety of growing conditions. Such a plant would not only help combat climate change, it would prevent worldwide famine.

Plant biologist, Joanne Chory and her team at Salk Institute are betting that they can make a plant with these attributes a reality. In fact last month, Chory was awarded a $3 million Breakthrough Prize to support her initiative to develop what she and her team have dubbed the “ideal plant.”

In a statement announcing the prize, Chory said,

“Humanity is at a crossroads. In the coming decades, as the human population increases from 7 billion to 10 billion or more, we are going to put incredible pressure in the planet’s ability to support us. Global warming is going to make providing for this population very difficult, if not impossible, and we desperately need ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Plants can be a critical part of the solution.”

Director of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, Chory has spent the past 30 years studying the inner workings of plants, focusing on what allows them to grow, survive stress, and adapt to new environments. She and her team are now using that knowledge to engineer a protein-rich leafy green plant with carbon-storing, drought – and flood-resistant superpowers. She has said that it may taste like a chickpea.

At the heart of the plant’s ability to store carbon is a biopolymer called suberin, a major component of cork that provides a protective barrier around plant tissue to keep out harmful solutes. For example, suberin in Mangrove tree roots helps reduce the amount of salt they absorb from their surrounding waters.

According to a report by the Salk Institute,

“Carbon stored in suberin could potentially stay in the soil for hundreds or even thousands of years. So you have two possible benefits: store more carbon and store it for a long time.”

To that end, the ideal plant will have a large root system that burrows deep into the ground, contains more suberin, and because it will be a perennial, keeps its roots — and the stored carbon —underground and out of the atmosphere.

Chory’s team is also studying plants that have adapted to a variety of climates over time, so they can engineer that superpower into their ideal plant. Team member, Julie Law, assistant professor at Salk, notes in the report,

“As plants spread and adapted to new conditions, they evolved new survival skills. We can learn from these plants to design crops that will be highly adaptable and can grow in a range of climates.”

Given the effects of climate change, the ideal plant will not only need to be heat and drought resistant, it must also be able to bounce back after a flood. As Salk biology professor, Joseph Ecker explains in the report,

“The essence of climate change from a plant’s perspective is responding to stress, because changes in the plant’s environment can represent an existential threat. Developing a thorough understanding of the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that control plants’ stress responses will allow us to develop crops that are more resilient and precisely suited to specific climate regimes.”

According to the New York Post, Chory estimates that it will take 10 years and $50 million to turn the ideal plant into a reality. The Post article also explains that,

“In order for the plant to help reverse the effects of global warming, it would need to account for five percent of the world’s cropland. A swath of land about the size of Egypt could capture 50 percent of current levels of CO2 emissions.”

The clock is ticking. As Chory says in the Salk Institute’s report,

“Our world is at a crossroads. Over the next fifty years, the human population will grow to around 10 billion people. Right now we have 7 billion people and we have already strained the planet’s ability to support us. Our action or inaction will determine our fate.”

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TOPICS: Carbon Pollution, Climate Change, Science