The Salk Institute will receive more than $35 million, one of its largest donations ever, to design plants to fight global warming.
The grant from the TED Audacious Project goes to the Salk's Harnessing Plants Initiative, which seeks to breed and genetically engineer plants to soak up more carbon dioxide from the air. The initiative was announced in November 2017.
Plants already store CO2 - a greenhouse gas that climate scientists say contributes to increases in global temperatures - as part of their natural metabolism, said Joanne Chory, a Salk plant scientist who heads the initiative. The goal is to increase storage, especially in the roots, she said. That material would remain in the soil, and the CO2 with it.
This can be done with regular food crops, Chory said. The initiative is targeting the biggest crops, for maximum effect. These include rice, corn, wheat, rye and cotton.
"You don't need any new infrastructure or distribution system," Chory said. "And so that makes the cost of sequestering billions of tons of carbon way lower than any of our competitors, if we can pull all that off."
About 25 percent of the carbon dioxide added to the air by human activity could be removed, Chory said. That would make a significant contribution to bringing carbon dioxide emissions into balance.
The genetic traits needed to increase carbon storage are already known, Chory said. It's now mainly a matter of breeding or genetically engineering these traits into the plants. Seed companies must be convinced to offer these seeds - and farmers must see the benefit in buying them.
Originally, the initiative envisioned engineering plants to grow in low-value or non-arable regions. That is still part of the plan, but adding in food crops provides the industrial scale needed.
The Audacious Project is housed at TED, the nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas worth considering. Its first grants were given in 2018. The Salk grant came from more than 10 people and organizations, coordinated through the project.
"What we found compelling is the idea that plants can be our best ally in solving the situation that we're in right now, and that it's almost a solution that's been hiding in plain sight," said Anna Verghese, the project's executive director.
Chory's role gives the initiative additional credibility, Verghese said, because she's a renowned plant biologist who has made fundamental discoveries.
Few gifts to the Salk rival that from the Audacious Project. In 2013, the institute received a $42 million donation from the Helmsley Charitable Trust. At that time, it was the largest single donation in the Salk's history. However, a number of donors have given multiple times, and the Audacious gift came from many individual donors.
Chory was schedule to discuss the initiative Tuesday evening at a TED event in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The initiative may break an impasse on dealing with global warming, said Joseph Noel, another participating Salk scientist. Instead of condemning carbon dioxide as a dangerous pollutant, the initiative seeks to use it as a valuable material.
"Carbon dioxide is essential in our atmosphere," Noel said. "It is a greenhouse gas and that's what allows the earth to have these very reasonable temperatures in which humans and other animals can actually exist. And it's also the fertilizer for the planet."
The carbon sink is a material called suberin, the main substance in cork. Plants naturally make suberin in their roots. Because suberin lasts for decades, it sequesters carbon for a long time.
As a result, crop plants would become more weather-resistant, Noel said.
Crops that have already been genetically modified would be the easiest to gain acceptance among the public, he said.
And suberin itself has important uses beyond sealing wine bottles. As a building material, suberin resists fire, insulates against sound, and helps roads resist cracking. But its quantity is limited, because cork trees grow slowly, Noel said.
Enhancing suberin production for non-crop plants in critical wetlands would protect them from environmental stresses, said Noel, who is working on that part of the initiative. Suberin protects roots from getting waterlogged or drying out, guards against excess salinity, and also keeps out pests.
"Those ecosystems are some of the world's largest deposits of sedimentary or soil carbon," Noel said. "So they have a capacity to store carbon up to a hundred times greater than an equivalent area of dry land."
Prototype suberin-enhanced plants can be expected in a few years, Noel said.
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