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Salk Scientists Debate Editing Plant Genes To Fight Climate Change

Flowering Arabidopsis plant in Salk Greenhouse, on November 30, 2016.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Flowering Arabidopsis plant in Salk Greenhouse, on November 30, 2016.

Salk Scientists Debate Editing Plant Genes To Fight Climate Change


Wolfgang Busch, associate professor, Salk Institute


Scientists at the Salk Institute are turning to plants as a means to stave off climate change, hoping to develop new plants that can store more carbon dioxide in their roots. But they are faced with an ethical dilemma: use traditional breeding technology to create the plants over the next decade or use much faster genetic engineering?

Genetic engineering has raised several concerns, mostly around the creation of genetically modified food or crops. Corporations have developed herbicide-resistant crops that some farmers claim make them too dependent on buying new seeds. The Salk plants wouldn’t be used for food or sold, but creating new plants could still create problems.

“If you bring in lots of foreign genes into a species, you can’t assess whether they will take over a specific region,” Salk professor Wolfgang Busch said.

Busch is part of Salk’s “Harnessing Plants Initiative,” which hopes to create plants that make more of a substance called suberin, which is a main component of cork and helps plants store carbon. Salk is also trying to make the plants more resilient to the more extreme “climates of tomorrow,” according to Busch.

“The climate problem is the most important problem we currently have on this planet,” he said. “Given all the arguments that people have against genetically engineering plants combined with the urgency of the problem, should we use this engineering?”

Salk won’t make that decision until later this year. Busch will talk about Salk’s initiative Wednesday night at the Fleet Science Center, as part of The Center for Ethics in Science and Technology’s discussion series. Feedback from the talk will help inform that decision.

“My view right now is in favor of using genetic engineering, but it’s hard for us to assess all of the arguments we might not see,” he said.


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