Dr. Joanne Chory, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and HHMI, believes she can modify plants to absorb 20 times more CO2. Chory just won a $3 million Breakthrough Science prize.
She wants create new plant varieties that could pull incredible amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere and dramatically reduce the effects of climate change.
The plan involves a compound called suberin which is most commonly seen in cork trees.
Suberin has a lot of unique properties that could make it useful for storing carbon from the atmosphere. It’s primarily composed of carbon and it’s not biodegradable, which means it will last a very long time. Suberin can last for “a few thousand years,” according to Chory.
Suberin is mostly produced by cork trees, but it is also produced in small amounts in the roots of many plants. Using simple cross-breeding techniques, Chory can easily grow plants that produce much more of it. Currently, Chory’s lab is looking at breeding high levels of suberin production into chickpea and other harvest plants.
“If we can help plants make more of it than they usually make, and we put that ability into plants that we’ve already selected that have deeper and bigger roots, we think we can make a plant make 20 times the amount of suberin that it normally makes,” says Chory.
That much suberin is great for getting rid of CO2, because suberin isn’t biodegradable. Growing tons of suberin in plant roots means sequestering huge amounts of CO2 in the ground, and if the suberin stays there for thousands of years it means less carbon in our atmosphere. Suberin-producing plants could take a lot of human-produced CO2 out of the carbon cycle for good.
How much CO2 are we talking about here? “We did the numbers,” says Chory, “and the numbers say you need about five percent of the world’s farmland growing highly-enriched suberin crops to fix fifty percent of all the CO2 that we’re putting up there.”
Modified crops are completely useless aside from their suberin production, that would still make this the cheapest climate change solution ever proposed.
Other cost effective solutions for reducing global warming gas in the atmosphere
A 2016 study that claims feeding cows small amounts of seaweed along with their normal diet of grass can reduce methane emissions by up to 99 per cent.
The study, by a team of researchers at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, found in live trials with sheep that recorded methane levels fell between 50 – 70 per cent when they ate a diet including 2 per cent seaweed.
Kelp farm solution
About 37 percent of Earth’s land area is used for agricultural land. About one-third of this area, or 11 percent of Earth’s total land, is used for crops. The balance, roughly one-fourth of Earth’s land area, is pastureland, which includes cultivated or wild forage crops for animals and open land used for grazing.
There is a proposal to use about 9% of the oceans surface for massive kelp farms. The Ocean surface area is about 36 billion hectares. This would offset all CO2 production and provide 0.5 kg of fish and sea vegetables per person per day for 10 billion people as an “incidental” by-product. Nine per cent of the world’s oceans would be equivalent to about four and a half times the area of Australia.