Receives $35 million to turbochargeplants’ natural abilities

The Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plants Initiative to combat climate change using plants, led by Professor Joanne Chory, executive director of the Harnessing Plants Initiative, will receive funding of more than $35 million from over 10 individuals and organizations through The Audacious Project, a highly competitive program housed at the nonprofit organization TED. The collective commitments represent one of the largest gifts to a single project in the Institute’s history.

“We are overjoyed with this strong show of support for the Harnessing Plants Initiative from donors through The Audacious Project,” Chory, director of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory shared with Giving Back Magazine. “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 (negative emissions) but that can also help enrich soils and increase crop yields.”

A Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and recipient of the 2018 Breakthrough Prize and the 2018 Gruber Prize in Genetics for her work in plant biology, Chory presented the key elements of the initiative in a nine-minute speech before an audience of 2,000 people attending the TED annual conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, on April 16, 2019.

The Harnessing Plants Initiative Leadership Team – which includes Salk faculty Wolfgang BuschJoseph EckerJulie Law and Joseph Noel– aims to use a combination of cutting-edge technologies to turbocharge plants’ ability to capture and store larger amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in their roots and keep it buried in the ground for hundreds of years.

The key to the Harnessing Plants Initiative’s plan lies in a substance called suberin (one form of stem suberin is cork), a naturally occurring carbon-rich substance found in plant roots that resists decomposition. By understanding and improving several genetic pathways in plants, the Salk team will develop plants that grow bigger, more robust root systems containing an increased amount of suberin to absorb larger amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, and bury the carbon-rich suberin deep in the soil.

Once the Salk team has developed ways to increase suberin in model plants, they will transfer these genetic traits to six prevalent crop plants. In addition to mitigating climate change, the additional carbon in the soil will make the soil richer in organic matter, while making the plants resilient to stress caused by climate change, prompting better crop yields and more food for a growing global population. In a related but distinct project, the team will also focus on restoration of coastal plants that constitute some of the most powerful carbon sinks on the planet. Restoring these systems will allow coastal plants to thrive and store more carbon while also reinvigorating fisheries, rejuvenating coral reefs, and aiding in coastal restoration efforts.

Donors of this innovative initiative through The Audacious Project include the Clara Wu and Joe Tsai Foundation, Chris Larsen and Lyna Lam, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, Genevieve and Steve Jurvetson, Rosamund Zander and Hansjörg Wyss for the Wyss Medical Foundation, Joe Gebbia and Isabelle Boemeke, and others.