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

And what that tells us is that all life on earth is really related, but plants are more related to each other than other organisms. And that you can take a trait that you know from one plant and put it in another plant, and you can make a prediction that it’ll do the same thing. And so that’s important as well.

Then finally, we have these little genetic tricks that came along, like you heard about this morning — things like CRISPR, that allows us to do editing and make genes be a little different from the normal state in the plant.

OK, so now we have biology on our side. I’m a biologist, so that’s why I’m proposing a solution to the climate change problem that really involves the best evolved organism on earth to do it — plants.

So how are we going to do it?

Biology comes to the rescue. Here we go. OK.

You have to remember three simple things from my talk, OK? We have to get plants to make more suberin than they normally make, because we need them to be a little better than what they are.

We have to get them to make more roots, because if we make more roots, we can make more suberin — now we have more of the cells that suberin likes to accumulate in.

And then the third thing is, we want the plants to have deeper roots. And what that does is — we’re asking the plant, actually, “OK, make stable carbon, more than you used to, and then bury it for us in the ground.” So they can do that if they make roots that go deep rather than meander around on the surface of the soil.

Those are the three traits we want to change: more suberin, more roots, and the last one, deep roots.

Then we want to combine all those traits in one plant, and we can do that easily and we will do it, and we are doing it actually, in the model plant, Arabidopsis, which allows us to do these experiments much faster than we can do in another big plant.

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And when we find that we have plants where traits all add up and we can get more of them, more suberin in those plants, we’re going to move it all — we can and we will, we’re beginning to do this — move it to crop plants.

And I’ll tell you why we’re picking crop plants to do the work for us when I get to that part of my talk.

OK, so I think this is the science behind the whole thing. And so I know we can do the science, I feel pretty confident about that. And the reason is because, just in the last year, we’ve been able to find single genes that affect each of those three traits. And in several of those cases, two out of the three, we have more than one way to get there.

So that tells us we might be able to even combine within a trait and get even more suberin. This shows one result, where we have a plant here on the right that’s making more than double the amount of root than the plant on the left, and that’s just because of the way we expressed one gene that’s normally in the plant in a slightly different way than the plant usually does on its own.

All right, so that’s just one example I wanted to show you.

And now I want to tell you that, you know, we still have a lot of challenges, actually, when we get to this problem, because it takes — We have to get the farmers to actually buy the seeds, or at least the seed company to buy seeds that farmers are going to want to have.

And so when we do the experiments, we can’t actually take a loss in yield, because while we are doing these experiments, say, beginning about 10 years from now, the earth’s population will be even more than it is right now. And it’s rapidly growing still.

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So by the end of the century, we have 11 billion people, we have wasted ecosystems that aren’t really going to be able to handle all the load they have to take from agriculture.

And then we also have this competition for land. And so we figure, to do this carbon sequestration experiment actually requires a fair amount of land. We can’t take it away from food, because we have to feed the people that are also going to be on the earth until we get past this big crisis.

And the climate change is actually causing loss of yield all over the earth.

So why would farmers want to buy seeds if it’s going to impact yield?

So we’re not going to let it impact yield, we’re going to always have checks and balances that says go or no go on that experiment.

And then the second thing is, when a plant actually makes more carbon and buries it in the soil like that, almost all the soils on earth are actually depleted of carbon because of the load from agriculture, trying to feed 8 billion people, which is what lives on the earth right now. And so, that is also a problem as well.

Plants that are making more carbon, those soils become enriched in carbon. And carbon-enriched soils actually hold nitrogen and they hold sulphur and they hold phosphate — all the minerals that are required for plants to grow and have a good yield. And they also retain water in the soil as well.

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