The Harnessing Plants Initiative, led by renowned plant biologist Joanne Chory, will receive funds through The Audacious Project, a New York City-based effort by the TED organization to support globe-changing innovation.
“Joanne’s passion and commitment, as well as her decades of research into the biology of plants, has set the foundation for this revolutionary and ambitious approach,” says Salk President Rusty Gage. “We are immeasurably proud of her and the entire Salk plant biology team for taking such a leadership role in combating climate change.”
The key to the Salk plan lies in a substance called suberin, the main component of cork, that is rich in carbon and found in plant roots. By improving several genetic pathways in plants, the Salk team will develop varieties 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 deep in the soil.
“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,” said Chory, director of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory in La Jolla.
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,
In a related project, the team will also focus on restoration of coastal plants such as mangroves, marsh grasses and wetland plants that constitute some of the most powerful carbon sinks on the planet.
Chory led Salk’s involvement with The Audacious Project, presenting key elements of the initiative in a speech before an audience of 2,000 people attending the TED annual conference in Vancouver, BC, on Tuesday.
“Salk’s innovative approach to tackling climate change has been hiding in plain sight—in the biology of the plants that surround us—and we’re excited to help put their bold plan into action,” said Anna Verghese, executive director of The Audacious Project.
Salk officials described the $35 million gift as one of the largest in the institute’s history and said it will support Chory and her team or researchers for the next five years.
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