Scientists Are Working On A 'Superplant' To Save The Planet From Climate Change

“We’re trying to do something that’s a huge, complicated thing even though it sounds so simple."

Dr. Joanne Chory is fighting off Parkinson's disease while she tries to find a way to save the planet. Right now, her leading idea is a genetically modified "superplant."

Chory hopes to leverage plants' natural ability to capture and store carbon and genetically modify them to increase their abilities. If she's successful, the plants will be better able to absorb carbon in the air, capable of storing more carbon in their roots and release less carbon into the atmosphere when they die.

"We're trying to do something that's a huge, complicated thing even though it sounds so simple," Chory told The Guardian"Plants evolved to suck up CO2 and they're really good at it. And they concentrate it, which no machine can do, and they make it into useful materials, like sugar. They suck up all the CO2, they fix it, then it goes back up into the atmosphere."

Chory's work is already underway at the Salk Institute in California, which has dubbed its hopeful finished product Ideal Plants. 

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Dr. Joanne Chory of the Salk Institute.  Salk Institute

Chory is using familiar gene editing techniques and CRISPR to change plants, according to Financial Times. If she can develop plants that store more carbon dioxide in their roots, and then convince farmers across the globe to use those plants in mass, it'd do enough to slow down climate change. Salk Institute, founded by Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine, is backing her work. The Salk team says a solution like Chory's could "achieve as much as a 46% annual reduction in excess CO2 emissions produced by humans," The Guardian said. 

Naturally, there are a few major obstacles. The first two have to do with time: the world has already warmed by one degree Celsius, and many scientists believe the threshold for irreversible damage to the environment is two degrees Celsius, which is approaching quickly. The other is Chory's battle with Parkinson's, which she understands could inhibit her ability to research the gene editing methods.

"I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders," Chory told The Guardian. "It is a lot of pressure."

The other obstacle is if the perfect carbon-absorbing plant and soils are created, getting farmers to adopt them. Scientists at the Salk Institute concede that they can't predict how these plants might impact the earth, but the climatologists concerned about global warming also know that some of the most popular ideas for reducing carbon emissions — like carbon capture — are not scalable. Spreading a superplant across the globe looks like a more feasible large-scale solution than finding or developing the technology needed for some other popular ideas.

"The whole job of plants is to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn those carbon molecules into sugars, into biomass," Julie Law, an associate professor at the Salk Institute, told the Financial Times. "They have basically been adapted to take carbon dioxide as their food source... The beauty is that plants are already doing this on such a large global scale, that if we can just tap into that a little bit, we can make a big impact."

Cover image via Shutterstock /  Yein Jeon.

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