Scientists at the Salk Institute in San Diego are developing “Ideal plants” with super-charged roots to fight climate change.

Corked-up superplants

We all know that plants suck carbon out of the air with photosynthesis. However, much of the carbon they pulled in gets released back into the atmosphere when they die.

The scientists at Salk are focusing on the second part of the cycle – they want to develop plants that will store more carbon in the soil when they’re alive and not decompose as easily when they die so they release significantly less CO2 back into the atmosphere.

The key to their research? A substance called Suberin, the same material as the cork in wine bottles.

All plants produce some Suberin to protect their roots against bacteria and fungi. It’s a natural carbon polymer plastic that doesn’t decay easily in soil.

Last fall, the Salk Institute team found a gene that could dramatically increase suberin content in roots. Joanne Chory, the lead scientist says that they can get plants to “make 20 times what they make now pretty easily.”

Major carbon reduction potential

Global carbon emission hit an all-time high last year and is showing no signs of slowing down. Scientists at Salk believe that their solution, if deployed globally, can take away as much as 46% of annual excess CO2 emissions.

Moreover, because they plan to remove carbon naturally with plants, the only energy they’ll need will come from the Sun – a major advantage compared to other carbon capture methods that still require a lot of energy.

It’s still early to pop the cork just yet

The team plans to partner with agricultural firms and governments to distribute corn, cotton, soya beans, and wheat with Suberin-rich traits on a global scale in the future. However, it is unclear how farmers and consumers will react to Suberin-fortified crops.

Although the Salk team doesn’t put in foreign genetic materials, Suberin-rich crops will still technically fall under GMO, which is banned in the EU and unpopular among consumers who prefer organic produce. Plus, getting the pricing and distribution right to farmers around the world will be a difficult roadblock to overcome.

 

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