Plants Capture Carbon

Longtime Del Mar resident Joanne Chory, a noted plant biologist at the Salk Institute, is helping to lead an ambitious effort to coax plants to capture and store more carbon dioxide than they normally would. In a recent zoom collaboration between the Del Mar Garden Club and the Salk Institute’s Women in Science program, Chory discussed and fielded questions on the Harnessing Plants Initiative, a significant endeavor aimed at genetically optimizing certain plants to grow deeper, more robust, and decomposition-resistant root systems, which will enable the plants to sequester more carbon in the soil for longer periods. The initiative has received significant funding from the Bezos Earth Fund.


“Humanity is at a crossroads,” said Chory. “We are now facing collapsed ecosystems and the effects of climate change, along with a burgeoning human population. If we don’t make all possible efforts to substantially reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we will be leaving our children and grandchildren to live in a much more dangerous and unhealthy world.”


Chory and her colleagues—the project includes five teams of plant biologists—have already identified genes in some plants such as Arabidopsis, that can be retooled to grow more roots. Ultimately, the goal is to modify the genetic blueprint of crop plants such as corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat, so that vast areas of farmland—hopefully some 500 million hectares—can be put to work by sucking between four and eight gigatons of carbon out of the atmosphere per year. Plants can be optimized to enrich soils and increase crop yields, as well as reduce carbon emissions, according to Chory.


While optimizing crops to absorb more carbon dioxide won’t be enough to slow climate change, Chory said, it is a bridging technique that will buy us time when implemented with other strategies, while more permanent solutions can be considered. One of the most significant challenges in growing huge numbers of enhanced crops at scale is the need for farmers to be incentivized to buy the seeds Chory and her colleagues develop. The project will ultimately include 20 farming test sites across the U.S. where enhanced crops can be studied and monitored to ensure that carbon sequestration goals are being met. Some of the plants that Chory’s group is studying should be ready to plant next year.


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