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Salk Scientists Plan To Combat Climate Change With Plants

 April 17, 2019 at 10:48 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Sometimes the most profound scientific discoveries start as the simplest ideas. A team of plant scientist at the Salk institute believe there's simple idea of harnessing the power of plants to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their roots could have a dramatic impact on efforts to combat climate change. And now generous donors behind Ted talks, the audacious project or giving the sock $35 million to make it reality. This is salt professor Joanne Shorey, who's leading this project from the Ted Stage in Vancouver, British Columbia last night. Speaker 2: 00:35 Lance have the capacity as photosynthetic organisms to help out and so we're hoping that's what they'll do. If it is a catch you, we have to help the plants a little ourselves. Speaker 1: 00:47 As part of the KPBS climate change desk, Mark Sauer spoke with biochemist, Doctor Joe, Dr. Joe Noel and Geneticists, Dr Julie Law, both members of salts plant biology team for the harnessing plant initiative. Here's that interview Speaker 3: 01:02 professor of law. What's socks? Harnessing plants initiative. Speaker 4: 01:05 So the harnessing plants initiative at Salk is based on harnessing the natural ability of plants to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. And what we'd like to do is generate plants that can draw down a significant portion of the excess co two that's put into the atmosphere based on human activity. And so while this is a clearly an audacious project, the basic idea of is very easy to understand. So we want to use the fact that plants during the process of photosynthesis takes the o two from the atmosphere and generate plant biomass. And then the idea would be to generate plants that take that CO2 and generate deeper, more robust root systems. They contain molecules that are resistant to degradation. So in a year over year basis, we would be essentially locking more carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. Speaker 3: 01:50 All right. And professor know, how did the idea to use a cork like substance to help plants grow more complex root systems and absorb more carbon dioxide? How'd that come about? Um, it actually goes back to my childhood. So I grew up in western Pennsylvania and my grandmother and great grandmother were avid gardeners, taught me to love plants from a very early age. And I actually got very into composting, actually degrading kitchen waste in I collected leaves in the neighborhood, et cetera. And one thing I remembered a couple of years ago when we began thinking about plants as a way to change the, the conversation about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was that I was trying to decompose quirks from wine bottles in a compost bin. And I remembered that they actually persisted for long periods of time. And so I'd sort of drew back on that a couple of years ago when we started talking about how plants might be a mitigating factor for Co two in the atmosphere. Speaker 3: 02:44 Oh, interesting backstory on that. So why does this work? How does this work? Tell us about the process. So it's an interesting idea that you know, for a number of years people have been thinking about engineering approaches to reducing the carbon dioxide that's already in our atmosphere. But the answer was actually staring us right in the face. It's all around us. It was plants. So this really interesting process called photosynthesis that is the basis of the entire food chain, which is what plants do. They actually use. Carbon dioxide is a fertilizer and they converted into a whole host of really wonderful natural chemicals, one of which is cork. We call it super in, but most people are familiar with it as cork, but all plants actually have it and it will actually stay behind in the soil because all roots of plants in particular make a lot of this quirky material. Speaker 3: 03:32 And it's a con, it's a protective mechanism that plants have that regulates their interaction with the environment. But we also know when you actually go in and look at soils that are very organically rich, very fertile, and you actually say, what are the natural molecules that are in soil? It turns out that it's the building blocks of Cork. So it's a way of converting this carbon dioxide, which a lot of people nowadays think of as a toxic pollutant. We reframe the question, we look at it as a fertilizer. We're all carbon based life form. So every carbon atom in your body actually comes from carbon dioxide. So by reframing that problem and realizing that plants are all around us, and rather than using an engineering solution, we use a natural solution that biology has been perfecting over the last 2.8 billion years since photosynthesis first arose on her and professional role. Speaker 3: 04:22 How many plants are, what will it take to achieve the project goal of reducing co two by 20 to 46%? It's pretty ambitious goal. It's a very ambitious goal. Um, and we're focusing really at this moment on crops. So the major food crops that are used worldwide that allows us to gain the acreage that we need to actually combat the issue of Co two in the atmosphere. And right now we're looking at about eight plants that are grown on about half of the global acreage use to form a plants in which type of plants we'll be talking about. How did you identify which ones to grow? So we actually looked at what are actually grown as the major food crops worldwide in terms of their sheer acreage. So things like corn, rice, wheat, and then even things like cover crops that are used to actually enrich the soil, radishes, clover and rye grass. All right, so I'll throw this out. It's kind of a jump ball question for both of you. How do you determine the impact? How do you scale this up on a worldwide basis and hope it has enough impact to be meaningful to a two for climate change? Speaker 4: 05:27 Yeah, so I mean I'm on a broad level. Of course we want to try to get these plants, the prototypes out and running and then we have to partner with Angios and NC companies and, and talk to farmers to get these out and planted at scale and take advantage of that already set in place. Um, infrastructure. Um, and in terms of, of measurement, I'm part of the project is to be able to measure and quantify it and in much level of detail then we're able to do now exactly how much carbon is I'm staying behind this oils. But the nice part about the initiative is that it's, it's very scalable. So w w the one individual plant only needs to be a little bit better at doing, uh, at, at, um, taking the CO2 and storing it in these cork like molecules in the soil. And if you add it up over all the different plants that we're, we're trying to generate and all the different acreage that we'd like to cover, we can make a big impact. Speaker 3: 06:22 Okay. And it's yet to be determined just how much of an impact I don't, I'll have to see that as you go on. Yeah, that's the major part of the science that we're actually conducting. We have to quantify with precision and accuracy what ag, what exactly is happening. So how many molecules of carbon dioxide do these plants actually pull in and then modeling it with sophisticated computer programs as to the acreage that they're planted on. And we can make accurate predictions as to what it would actually do in terms of reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All right. And professor know, what are the key challenges that you see as you head into this project? One is actually more outside of our wheelhouse, which is in policy and interacting with governments, NGOs and and seed companies for acceptance of these crops. And that's where I, where you know, the scientific community is a global village. Speaker 3: 07:08 We really have to interact with a lot of other partners in this. This is not solely a salt salt program. What we really hope to do is to do the science. They can demonstrate the feasibility and the scalability of the project to a sufficient level of detail that we are able to convince others to partner with us. To really expand this in an in a global sense. And you've got to work a professor law with a politics and politicians. I mean, that plays into this department of Agriculture is huge as an enormous budget here in the United States. We have a similar agencies in every country around the world. At some point you're going to have to make that leap in into the political world on this, I imagine. Yeah. Speaker 4: 07:45 Yeah. I mean, it's something that we've been thinking about us as I'm Joe mentioned. It's not something that's normally within our wheelhouse. So we're trying to start to engage with, um, with the people involved in all aspects of, of policy, um, as well as um, um, agriculture and on top of the, of the science. And we're hoping to kind of engage early and often so that as we're rolling things out, we're doing the best that we can to make it the easiest transition from, from the, you know, from the biology in the lab out into the real world. And we're hopeful that beyond having a social benefit of, of drawing down more [inaudible], that if we're successful in generating these plants, they may also have economic benefits. For example, the increase soil carbon should help with fertility of the soil and having increased soil health and also has the potential to make the plants more resistant to extreme weather like droughts and flooding. So on top of having a, you know, a social benefit, we were hopeful that it will also have an economic benefit will, which will help with some of these aspects of the project that kind of go behind the, the, the science. Speaker 3: 08:44 And finally, a personal question for both of you. How excited and hopeful are you about the success and impact of this project? I mean, we talked about how ambitious it is, but it must be very gratifying personally in your careers to, to take this on Dr Law, Speaker 4: 08:59 it's really great to him to have a project where you know you have the potential to make a global impact and it's really at a time where both the science and technology are at a great stage. Then we can actually do things in the lab. I'm in in a much more streamlined manner and see them translated out into the real world in, in fields. And so I'm really hopeful that we'll be able to make a really big impact in a very short amount of time. Speaker 3: 09:22 And Professor Noah from your Cork Cork background now to a, to haven't a chance to really do this in your career. So I'm a grandfather now and I have two children and so I would love to live, leave a legacy in a selfie sense to my own family, but also to the, to the larger community. It was one of the original mandates of Jonas Salk at the Salk when he founded. It was too, we have to be reasonably good ancestors to the future. So as Julie said, with the technology now available, I'm very optimistic that we can achieve this, the, you know, how we get there. That's what the science, that's what we have to do. And we face this every day in our lab. We're all, we're going to hit, you know, roadblocks. But what we do as scientists figure out solutions to those problems, and a, and I'm very, very hopeful that this is, this will be one part of a larger group of, of technologies and science that can be brought to bear to deal with the issue of climate and the stakes couldn't be higher with global warming and climate change. Absolutely. Absolutely. I've been speaking with Salk institute professors, Joe Noel and Julie Law, both members of the sock plant biology team. Thank you both. Thank you. Thank you. And they were speaking with KPBS is mark Sauer as part of the KPBS climate change desk. Speaker 5: 10:38 Okay.

A team of plant scientists at The Salk Institute believes their simple idea of harnessing the power of plants to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their roots could have a dramatic impact on efforts to combat climate change.