By Nora Lelivelt
DAVIS – Last Friday, the College of Biological Sciences at UC Davis hosted a scientific presentation highlighting how plants may be the solution to climate change. Guest speaker, Professor Joanne Chory, presented her work on harnessing the plant’s innate ability to sequester carbon dioxide.
The urgency of global warming has been reported many times over; however, professor and director of the Plant Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Dr. Chory proposes a rather simple biomolecule solution that may save us all: more suberin.
Dr. Chory is known for her studies in plants’ response to environmental changes. When faced with the overwhelming challenge of climate change, she proposes this solution; “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.”
And scientific solutions such as these cannot come soon enough, as approximately 764 gigatons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere every year.
Dr. Chory explains that this is exactly what plants do best. Each year plants naturally will capture about 746 gigatons of carbon, which is significant, yet won’t fully account for all of the human-produced carbon dioxide.
Additionally, the drastically declining ratio of land per capita proposes a problem, as the challenge is to find enough land to have a global impact on CO2 levels.
“It will take a global village to fight a global problem.”
This brings us back to Dr. Chory’s proposed solution: find a way to manipulate plant genetics in order to store more carbon in their underground root systems, specifically in the biomolecule suberin.
And scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have already identified the best plants for doing so. By enhancing carbon storage in crops that are already being planted worldwide, there could be a total of 768 million hectares of land devoted to carbon drawdown.
Furthermore, this would require enhanced root growth in only five or six plants, including wheat, corn, rice, soybean, sorghum and rapeseed.
More specifically, her plan is to increase biomolecule, suberin, within the plants. This molecule, once associated with cork, is a “natural carbon-storing device” and is a primary component of all plant roots. If scientists could up-regulate the production of suberin, then the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered from the environment may also begin to increase.
However, for best practices and food security, it is unwise to promote a high concentration of suberin in plants. Instead, Dr. Chory plans to breed plants that grow more extensive root systems and contain deeper roots.
This will provide a larger surface area for suberin to store excess carbon.
And there are co-benefits of submersing deep roots in the soil. It may increase plant stress resistance, as well as resistance to drought, flooding and disease. Additionally, it may improve soil health to, in turn, provide a more consistent crop yield and food security for the growing global population.
This project also has the potential to be scalable for global use. There requires no new infrastructure, other than new seed, thus minimizing any distribution costs. And plants already have a great track record for being efficient carbon sequesters.
Currently, the lab has four fields across the United States with experiments measuring trait stacking (to find plants with both extensive root systems and deeper roots).
Within the next ten years, Dr. Chory hopes to have an optimized gene function and an approach planned to be scalable worldwide.
This will eventually lead to significant atmospheric carbon drawdown, however, the exact levels are difficult to predict as of now.
To read more, including the methods used to measure carbon drawdown, visit Dr. Joanne Chory’s website and publications at: www.salk.edu/scientist/joanne-chory/
To see Dr. Chory’s TED presentation, visit: www.ted.com/talks/joanne_chory_how_supercharged_plants_could_slow_climate_change
Lastly, for more insight on how UC Davis is responding to the climate crisis, visit: www.climatechange.ucdavis.edu/
Nora Lelivelt is a fourth-year Cell Biology major at UC Davis, also minoring in Professional Writing and Biodiversity.
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