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Salk Scientists Debate Editing Plant Genes To Fight Climate Change

Flowering Arabidopsis plant in Salk Greenhouse, on November 30, 2016.
Matthew Bowler
Flowering Arabidopsis plant in Salk Greenhouse, on November 30, 2016.
Salk Scientists Debate Editing Plant Genes To Fight Climate Change
Salk Scientists Debate Editing Plant Genes To Fight Climate Change GUEST: Wolfgang Busch, associate professor, Salk Institute

Perhaps the most urgent challenge facing scientists is finding ways to slow the buildup of common dioxide in the atmosphere which is leading to global warming. Scientists at the Salk Institute are developing plans -- plants that can store carbon dioxide more efficiently and the roots counteracting burning more fossil fuels. Wolfgang Busch is the associate professor at her desk professor at the Salk Institute. He is speaking at the Fleet Science Center for his research part of the center for ethics in science discussion series. Welcome work gang -- welcome Wolfgang. >> Thank you. >> What are the changes you are hoping to create crack >> What we set out to do is to find a way that plants it more efficient in storing very stable forms of carbon. Plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make it into all the biomaterials the world uses the including us. Right now most of these plant parts are degraded by us, fungi and bacteria. We went to teach plans to store carbon in a very stable form in their roots and grow very deep and profound root systems to deposit those very stable forms of carbons in the soul. >> Assuming you succeed, what effect could that have on climate change? >> We have calculated if we genetically enhance the ability plants to become much more efficient like 20 fold to store carbon safely in the soil, 5% of the -- currently used for agriculture could get 50% of the human produced carbon dioxide out of the air. >> Significant. >> So I think it's a viable option. That's why we are hopeful we can achieve that PIXMA with these plans have other purposes aside from reducing carbon dioxide? >> We debated this. The easiest would have a plan good at this and have the plants grow. But if we keep in mind in the next 30 years, there will be 10 billion people on the planet. It will be hard to actually have plans growing on land that don't produce anything. So we actually will have multiple iterations of the plants. One line of research will basically produce feed plants. Cover crops for instance grazing cows can eat. Another one would be we might put those enhance carbon storage straits into food producing plants like lentils. >> You have options of ways you could approach this. What are the options you are looking at now? >> We understand which genes program plants to do certain things like producing the carbon rich stable compound or making deeper roots. You can transfer those traits into plants by using traditional breeding approaches. By taking natural gene variants and crossing plants over many generations. Putting variance within one plant strain. That takes a long time. The other option is to use genetic engineering to do this within a short timeframe. To take those gene variants we know will lead to better carbon sequestration and put it into the genome of the plant. >> What are the issues you are debating tonight about whether this is ethical? >> We know the science can be done. The question is, how will the debate about genetic engineering drive the project X I think there are three main arguments that opponents of genetic engineering usually come forward with. The first is that in genetically engineered plants, sometime of herbicide resistance is use. You can kill everything else in the field but not this field. Opponents are worried there is actually this herbicide resistance in weeds. The second concern is usually related to food crops like maize where they can be transmitted to non-genetically engineered plants which leads to a propagation of those genetically engineered plants that cannot be easily controlled. The third concern relates to food. When humans eat genetically engineered plants, there may be ages that were present before. >> You just got -- you described these as Salk ideal plants. Does that point to a future where places like Salk on the rights to plants around us? >> That's a very good question. I think most of my colleagues and I are very open sourced minded people. Of course this research takes quite some money. In order to prevent somebody using the same concepts without generating any money from it, if any money could ever be generated, the revenue would be a concern. The reality of this is, I think without any legal trademarks or any other intellectual property thinking, it would be hard to convince people to plant and distribute this. >> Where would they be planted? >> There are multiple ways you can think of this. They could be planted on marginal land for grazing Francis. Farmers would need to have an incentive to do that. There are -- much of this is dependent on policy. Is clear there is carbon trading opportunities where for instance energy companies might buy certificates that basically say, so in such much carbon dioxide was taken away from the atmosphere and they need this to basically produce low carbon energy. Which many people like. Energy markets where people have the choice to select between different energy providers. The second would be if we ever would produce food like lentils, this would be planted on commercial agricultural land. >> You are currently facing an ethical decision. How are you going to make the decision? >> Right now we are in a phase where we collect ideas to decide the best way moving forward. One reason why I will give the lecture tonight at the Fleet Center, we are open to hearing arguments from the scientific side. There are not many that speak truly against using genetic engineering to get to those ideal plants. But of course there are always possibilities if you overlook arguments. I think this debate -- we have given lectures in different places -- debates are very useful to hear arguments we might not have seen before. And that we don't think about. Within this year we'll take the decision whether we will use traditional breeding approaches or using genetic engineering to generate the idea plant. >> Wolfgang Busch is an associate professor at the Salk Institute. The event tonight is at 5 PM at the Fleet Science Center.

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.