How Supercharged Plants Could Slow Climate Change: Joanne Chory (Transcript)

Joanne Chory – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

I recently had an epiphany.

I realized that I could actually play a role in solving one of the biggest problems that faces mankind today, and that is the problem of climate change.

It also dawned on me that I had been working for 30 years or more just to get to this point in my life where I could actually make this contribution to a bigger problem.

And every experiment that I have done in my lab over the last 30 years and people who work for me did in my lab over the last 30 years has been directed toward doing the really big experiment, this one last big experiment.

So who am I?

I’m a plant geneticist. I live in a world where there’s too much CO2 in the atmosphere because of human activity. But I’ve come to appreciate the plants as amazing machines that they are, whose job has been, really, to just suck up CO2.

And they do it so well, because they’ve been doing it for over 500 million years. And they’re really good at it. And so…

I also have some urgency I want to tell you about. As a mother, I want to give my two children a better world than I inherited from my parents, it would be nicer to keep it going in the right direction, not the bad direction.

But I also…I’ve had Parkinson’s for the last 15 years, and this gives me a sense of urgency that I want to do this now, while I feel good enough to really be part of this team.

And I have an incredible team. We all work together, and this is something we want to do because we have fun. And if you’re only going to have five people trying to save the planet, you better like each other, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time together.

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OK, all right. But enough about me.

Let’s talk about CO2. CO2 is the star of my talk. Now, most of you probably think of CO2 as a pollutant. Or perhaps you think of CO2 as the villain in the novel, you know? It’s always the dark side of CO2.

But as a plant biologist, I see the other side of CO2, actually. And that CO2 that we see, we see it differently because I think we remember, as plant biologists, something you may have forgotten. And that is that plants actually do this process called photosynthesis. And when they do photosynthesis — all carbon-based life on our earth is all because of the CO2 that plants and other photosynthetic microbes have dragged in from CO2 that was in the atmosphere.

And almost all of the carbon in your body came from air, basically. So you come from air, and it’s because of photosynthesis, because what plants do is they use the energy in sunlight, take that CO2 and fix it into sugars. It’s a great thing.

And the other thing that is really important for what I’m going to tell you today is that plants and other photosynthetic microbes have a great capacity for doing this — twentyfold or more than the amount of CO2 that we put up because of our human activities.

And so, even though we’re not doing a great job at cutting our emissions and things, plants have the capacity, as photosynthetic organisms, to help out. So we’re hoping that’s what they’ll do.

But there’s a catch here. We have to help the plants a little ourselves, because what plants like to do is put most of the CO2 into sugars. And when the end of the growing season comes, the plant dies and decomposes, and then all that work they did to suck out the CO2 from the atmosphere and make carbon-based biomass is now basically going right back up in the atmosphere as CO2.

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So how can we get plants to redistribute the CO2 they bring in into something that’s a little more stable?

And so it turns out that plants make this product, and it’s called suberin. This is a natural product that is in all plant roots. And suberin is really cool, because as you can see there, I hope, everywhere you see a black dot, that’s a carbon. There’s hundreds of them in this molecule.

And where you see those few red dots, those are oxygens. And oxygen is what microbes like to find so they can decompose a plant. So you can see why this is a perfect carbon storage device. And actually it can stabilize the carbon that gets fixed by the plant into something that’s a little bit better for the plant. And so, why now?

Why is now a good time to do a biological solution to this problem?

It’s because over the last 30 or so years — and I know that’s a long time, you’re saying, “Why now?” — but 30 years ago, we began to understand the functions of all the genes that are in an organism in general. And that included humans as well as plants and many other complicated eukaryotes.

And so, what did the 1980s begin? What began then is that we now know the function of many of the genes that are in a plant that tell a plant to grow. And that has now converged with the fact that we can do genomics in a faster and cheaper way than we ever did before.

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