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Researchers are 'supercharging' crops in hopes to save the planet from climate change

Posted at 3:27 PM, Dec 15, 2020

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Scientists are harnessing a not-so-secret weapon in the fight against climate change: plants.

“Plants are very good at one thing and that is to catch carbon dioxide out of the air and using the power of the sunlight to fix it to make into bio-materials," said Wolfgang Busch.

A plant scientist and professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Busch is co-director of the Harnessing Plants Initiative (HPI).

"Plants are superheroes," said Busch. “They can do what nothing else can do, no technical solution at that scale, to catch a lot of carbon dioxide and fix it.”

Yet, humanity is still losing the climate change battle. After decades of burning fossil fuels, the planet continues to warm, with natural disasters growing more frequent and intense.

Busch says while plants suck up carbon dioxide, some of it is released back into the atmosphere.

“How can we actually make plants better in not only catching the carbon dioxide but keeping it in the soil?” said Busch.

That's the challenge his team set out to solve, working to identify genes that help plants store more carbon underground.

“Trying to enhance their superhero capability even more," said Busch.

They’re developing plants with deeper, more massive roots, rich in a substance called suberin, a natural carbon storage device. Combined, these traits supercharge the plants, allowing them to absorb more carbon dioxide and keep it locked underground.

“We think it has all the characteristics of something that can make a huge impact addressing this very difficult question, how to draw down carbon dioxide from the air and store it," said Busch.

These climate fighting traits can then be transferred to the world’s six most prevalent crops: corn, soybean, canola, rice, wheat, and sorghum.

By tapping into the existing agricultural supply chain, researchers say more than 75 percent of the world’s cropland could be converted into carbon storage.

“We think in 10 to 15 years, after partnering with different stakeholders, seeds will be available to farmers at scale to plant the first carbon-sequestering crops,” said Busch.

Busch says one of their top priorities is ensuring the initiative will benefit farmers, aiming to produce plants that will equal, if not exceed, the yields of current crops. And storing carbon underground not only protects the atmosphere but enriches the soil, making it more fertile.

Busch says the plants will also be more resilient to climate-related threats, with an enhanced ability to hold water, resist pathogens, and tolerate stress

"Gives us hope that we can make a huge impact; if we can develop crops that are better at storing carbon for longer and if these crops are adopted at a very large scale," said Busch.

The initiative has received over $65 million in grants, with the most recent boost from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos donating $30 million.