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A Secret Weapon for Addressing Climate Change
It’s no secret. The world is warming as a result of climate change. And while efforts are under way to reduce humanity’s contribution to the carbon problem, plenty of work remains ahead, especially when it comes to changing consumers’ behaviors.
Understanding this challenge, researchers are innovating solutions that can help reduce carbon pollution -- and thus climate change -- faster. As noted in a piece for Wired Magazine, there may be a secret weapon:
Plants are the key to many climate-change-fighting tactics.
Reporter Emily Dreyfuss spoke with plant geneticist Joanne Chory of the Salk Institute in San Diego to learn how her research team is using plants to reduce carbon pollution.
“As plant biologists, we just looked at the problem a little differently. We didn’t think of an engineering solution. We didn't think about building a big machine that could suck in air and then capture the CO2 on a sponge, or whatever. We said, 'That’s what plants were evolved to do,'” Chory says.
Naturally, plants take carbon out of the atmosphere and convert it to oxygen through photosynthesis. Chory believes the key to fixing carbon pollution is to train plants to suck up just a little more CO2 and keep it longer. She is working on engineering the world’s crop plants to have bigger, deeper roots made of a natural waxy substance called suberin—found in cork and cantaloupe rinds—which is incredibly effective at capturing carbon and is resistant to decomposition.
By encouraging plants to have more suberin-rich roots, Chory can trick them into fighting climate change as they grow. The roots will store CO2, and when farmers harvest their crops in the fall, those deep-buried roots will stay in the soil and keep their carbon sequestered in the dirt, potentially for hundreds of years.
Chory and her team have estimated that these climate-change-fighting plants could reduce up to 46 percent of the excess carbon emitted annually if they become a fixture in the agricultural food chain. And the benefits don’t stop there.
Those roots will very slowly break down and deposit their carbon little by little into the soil. This could actually reverse some of the human-caused depletion that has removed carbon and other nutrients from the soil due to agricultural practices that “treat soil like dirt.”
Currently, Chory and her team are in the beginning phases of their work, identifying appropriate genes that led to favorable characteristics. Once the genes are mapped, the scientists will use a combination of plant breeding methods, including gene editing, to get these carbon-reducing plants into fields as fast as possible.