Harnessing the Power of Plants to Combat Climate Change

The Salk Institute has recently launched the Harnessing Plants Initiative, which seeks to develop plants that can help combat climate change by storing increased amounts of carbon within their roots to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere. In addition to identifying how plants can grow deeper roots, the initiative seeks to find ways for plants to grow more roots and to hold more carbon in those roots.

In one critical discovery related to the initiative, Salk Associate Professor Wolfgang Busch discovered a gene that determines whether roots grow deep or shallow in the soil. Deeper roots mean that carbon can be buried deeper underground, where it will stably remain for far longer.

“We are incredibly excited about this first discovery on the road to realizing the goals of the Harnessing Plants Initiative,” Associate Professor Wolfgang Busch, senior author of the paper describing the discovery shared with GB Magazine. “Reducing atmospheric CO2 levels is one of the great challenges of our time, and it is personally very meaningful to me to be working toward a solution.”

“We are overjoyed with this strong show of support for the Harnessing Plants Initiative,” says Professor Joanne Chory, executive director of the initiative, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and globally renowned for her work in plant science. “Plants have evolved over time to be an ideal vehicle for carbon capture and storage. If we can optimize plants’ natural ability to capture and store carbon, we can develop plants that not only have the potential to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but that can also help enrich soils and increase crop yields.”

In addition to Busch and Chory, the Harnessing Plants Initiative Leadership Team also includes Salk faculty Joseph EckerJulie Law and Joseph Noel. By understanding and improving several genetic pathways in plants, the Salk team will develop plants that grow bigger, more robust root systems that will absorb larger amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and bury it deep in the soil.

By influencing the genes that control these traits and then combining these characteristics in a single plant, the team will develop Salk Ideal Plants ™ which will be tested in a state-of-the-art climate simulation facility at Salk that can mimic environmental conditions almost anywhere on Earth. This facility will allow the scientists to uncover the genetic traits that help plants survive in stressful environments – in the past, present and future. The team will use that information to develop carbon-capturing crops that can survive in more extreme conditions. The team will later expand their laboratory tests to field trials locally and globally.