Scientists and researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which is in California, are currently exploring how biotechnology can help reduce carbon emissions and the effects of global warming.
Through the institute’s Ideal Plant initiative, researchers hope to develop plants that can store more carbon dioxide in their roots. And if this is done on a very, very large scale across the world with major agriculture crops – such as corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton – it could help slow down climate change.
However, for this to be possible, the Salk Institute team is working to determine how a plant could keep more carbon in the soil rather than returning it back to the atmosphere. They found their answer in a naturally-occurring plant molecule: suberin.
Professor Joseph Noel, a chemist on the Ideal Plant initiative, explained to Oxy News:
“There was an interesting molecule that was staring us in the face: suberin. It is actually cork. Suberin is a kind of complex natural plastic, it has things that look like diesel fuel in it, but it also has other components … It is the way that the plant regulates what gets into the root, like oxygen or other minerals.”
Suberin is more resistant to decomposition, meaning a plant with more suberin would return less carbon back to the atmosphere. With this knowledge, the team was able to find a gene that would allow plants to increase the amount of suberin in their roots. An added benefit of suberin is it helps plants be more drought- and flood-resistant.
The Ideal Plant researchers also have identified genes that could create deeper root systems with more root mass, which allows plants to hold more carbon.
Now, the Ideal Plant team is testing if these traits could be turned on in other plants through biotechnology innovations such as gene editing. This would allow the suberin and root traits to be in multiple varieties of seeds, like corn and soybeans. The more plants with these traits, the less carbon there could potentially be in the atmosphere.
While a prototype Ideal Plant is still years away, it is an example of how biotechnology, as well as partnerships between scientists and the agriculture industry, could help address some of the greatest challenges our world faces.