This scientist thinks she has the key to curb climate change: super plants
Plants <>

Dr Joanne Chory hopes that genetic modifications to enhance plants’ natural
carbon-fixing traits could play a key role – but knows that time is short,
for her and the planet

Adam Popescu <> in La
Jolla, California
@adampopescu <>

Tue 16 Apr 2019 06.00 EDT Last modified on Tue 16 Apr 2019 14.44 EDT
[image: Professor Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute, where she leads her
Ideal Plant project.]
Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute, where she leads her Ideal Plant
project. Photograph: John Francis Peters

If this were a film about humanity’s last hope before climate change wiped
us out, Hollywood would be accused of flagrant typecasting. That’s because Dr
Joanne Chory <> is too perfect
for the role to be believable.

The esteemed scientist – who has long banged the climate drum and now leads
a project that could lower the Earth’s temperature – is perhaps the world’s
leading botanist and is on the cusp of something so big that it could truly
change our planet.

She’s also a woman in her 60s who is fighting a disease sapping her very
life. In 2004, Chory was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which makes the
timetable for success all the more tenuous.

“We’re trying to do something that’s a huge, complicated thing even though
it sounds so simple,” Chory says. “Plants evolved to suck up CO2 and
they’re really good at it. And they concentrate it, which no machine can
do, and they make it into useful materials, like sugar. They suck up all
the CO2, they fix it, then it goes back up into the atmosphere.”

She is now working to design plants capable of storing even more carbon
dioxide in their roots. Her Ideal Plant project
<> uses gene editing –
via traditional horticulture and Crispr
– to do so. On a large scale, this could suck enough carbon out of the
atmosphere to slow down climate change.

This concept basically splices the genes of regular crops and everyday
plants like beans, corn and cotton, with a new compound that makes them
absorb more carbon. Their roots then transfer it to the soil to keep it

This approach essentially supercharges what nature already does.

“I get worked up when I talk about the project,” Chory tells me in an
office at the Salk Institute, a revered bio research campus at the edge of
the Pacific Ocean in southern California. Her desk is full of posies,
awards, family photos and framed magazine covers from science journals. “We
have to find a way to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and I think plants are
the only way to do that affordably,” Chory says.

“I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders,” she says,
letting out a laugh. “It is a lot of pressure.”
[image: image.png]
A view of a grow room where plants that belong to the genera Arabidopsis,
Lotus and Medicago at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Photograph: John Francis Peters

Born in Boston to Lebanese parents, the third of six children, Chory
received a PhD studying photosynthetic bacteria at the University of
Illinois. She spent her postdoctoral years as a Harvard Medical School
researcher, then joined the institute in 1988. Along the way, she’s
discovered how plants respond to everything from light and environment to
how they regulate size and growth.

“It’s a philosophical issue, too,” she says, explaining why so many kick
the can of global warming. “If I take pain now, maybe my
great-grandchildren might see a benefit. People choose no pain now, that’s
why we’ve done nothing about climate change.”

Every now and then as we speak, Chory’s symptoms pop up like an uninvited
guest, another stark reminder of time. Struggling to maintain control and
ever aware of the implied humor in her movements, she doesn’t shy from the
elephant in the room.

“When I get excited I really get moving,” she mock-apologizes, letting out
a coy chuckle. “I’m a lot better on Saturdays.” She pauses, collects her
thoughts. “That’s why I want to do something that won’t cause pain to
people. You never know when you’re making a global change. I don’t know if
we can do it, but we have to try.”
*An ‘**even **if’ **scenario*

Temperatures are already at alarming levels even if we reach the Paris
agreement of curbing a rise of 2C. The world is headed for major upheaval,
it’s merely a question of the scale. If we have any chance as a species,
Salk contends, it’s with big ideas like this.

Right now, the institute is negotiating with seed companies and prepping
tests on nine agricultural crops to introduce Ideal Plants
<> on farms around the world.
Field-testing begins later this year with wheat, soybeans, corn and cotton.

Developing these Ideal Plants is step one in the Harnessing Plants
Initiative, which amplifies root systems and production of suberin – which
is essentially cork, or the rind on your cantaloupe, the magic key to
plants holding more of that carbon – before transferring these genetic
traits to row and cover crops. Given the right resources, and funding,
prototypes of each crop are expected to be ready in the next five years.

A $2m gift by Howard Newman, a Salk board member and private equity veteran
who has invested in oil and gas, jump-started the project last June.

Chory says these new plants will have deeper and stronger root systems that
will also stop erosion, another byproduct of warming temperatures, which
will make soil more healthy and boost production. When normal plants die,
they release large amounts of CO2 back into the air; when Ideal Plants die,
significantly less CO2 will be re-released due to more carbon being stored
in deeper roots and soil for longer periods, and suberin’s natural ability
as a carbon polymer to resist short-term decomposition.

The first two meters of the Earth’s soil holds over three times the amount
of carbon as the atmosphere, and can hold even more. Fossil fuel use was
predicted to rise nearly 2% last year
<>. Each year, we produce
18 more gigatons of CO2 than the Earth can currently handle; Salk believes
their solution can achieve as much as a 46% annual reduction in excess CO2
emissions produced by humans.

It’s an extremely ambitious idea full of so many unknowns – how to get
global buy-in from farmers, how many years will it take for plants to reach
maturity and will it then be too late, how will mother nature react to such
genetic modification and how will these crops taste – that none of Salk’s
brains have the answers to.

The institute was founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk, a biologist who discovered
the cure for polio in 1955, two years before my own father’s identical twin
died of the disease in communist Romania, a place where politics kept
science at bay.

Standing at the edge of the seaside campus designed by Louis Kahn, a sprawl
of ominous cement towers and dramatic ocean views, it all feels straight
out of the mind of Philip K Dick. Part Gattaca, part Logan’s Run, it’s easy
to see why numerous films
have been shot here <>.

But there’s also an optimism in these labs that feels so far from the stark
structures and climate narrative I’m used to. Many scientists have told me
their role is something akin to historian, documenting the last days of a
species or system. Not so here.

“There is hope in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who
dare to make dreams into reality,” Jonas Salk once said.

Inside these modernist blocks, they’re dreamers too, but rooted in reality.
The biological research center, funded by government grants and private
donors, has spent decades inching towards cures for everything from cancer
to Alzheimer’s. In 1968, Robert W Holley, Salk Cancer Center’s founding
director, won a Nobel prize; in 1975, Institute staff won another Nobel,
and again in 1977 and 2002.

More recently, Chory was awarded a $3m breakthrough
<> for discovering how plants optimize
their growth, development and cellular structure to transform sunlight into
chemical energy.

I see the optimism on a tour with Dr Joseph Noel, a biochemist focused on
harnessing suberin, the project’s linchpin. He shows me seed-planting
robots, which can bang out a day’s work in the time it would take a human
weeks; state-of-the-art grow rooms capable of simulating almost any
environmental condition; greenhouses sitting atop dramatic bluffs. All the
while he breaks down the importance of cork. “It’s a spongy barrier that
helps a plant regulate water coming in and out, gas exchange coming in and
out. Think of it like a protective plastic around certain cells in the

The institute’s founder, Jonas, once said “our greatest responsibility is
to be good ancestors,” and I think about the quote’s relevance as Noel
shows me rows of simulation rooms full of cattails, marsh grasses, *Lotus
japonicus *legumes and weed-like *Arabidopsis thaliana,* all in various
states of growth as LEDs shine and humid air blasts while I take notes.

“Instead of just growing in a greenhouse or artificial lights in a lab, we
wanted to have the ability to simulate a particular climactic zone: quality
of light, seasonal changes, cloud cover, temperatures,” Noel says.

Since *Arabidopsis* “can go from seed to seed in six weeks” and its genome
is entirely sequenced and resembles so many other species, the little
mustard flower has become the project’s veritable Rosetta Stone.

“It’s very easy to change the genetics of it on a massive scale,” he
continues. “If we change a particular gene, we can find out if the roots
get deeper, do they get more extensive, does the suberin content change.
Their early ancestors have been doing photosynthesis for about 2.8bn years.”

Without plants, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. The question is whether
these ones will become our saviors.
Genetically modified plants remain a tough sell

There’s a growing field of carbon dioxide removal projects which include
machines pulling C02 out of the sky, known as direct air capture. There’s
Bill Gates-backed Carbon Engineering and the Zurich startup Climeworks, and
about 20 commercial carbon capture and storage facilities worldwide, but
they’re price prohibitive.

There have been notable failures: Sir Richard Branson tried a $25m prize
for carbon removal but never found a solution. Carbon removal initiatives
are also criticized for preserving the status quo and big energy business

“Ultimately, we all know that humanity’s response to climate change will,
as the Ideal Plant project states, make or break our future,” says David
Stern, the president and CEO of the Boyce Thompson Institute
<>, a leading plant research facility in New York,
who calls Chory a fearless, creative and open-minded scientist. “Given the
complexities and scale of the problem, many types of solutions will be
needed. Sequestration is undoubtedly one of them.”

One big problem, Stern notes, is winning hearts and minds. Genetically
modifying organisms saving the planet might be a tough sell in an era when
GMO has become the antithesis for the green, organic movement.

“While they are not proposing traditional transgenic lines nor are they
proposing to do their work in food crops, the issue will still come up,”
Stern adds.

Chory maintains that plants have been modified for millennia – selecting
the best strains to cultivate and taking a hand in their development is a
form of genetic modification, after all – and the nutritional and yield
values of such tweaked products still outweigh the drawbacks. Salk doesn’t
introduce foreign genetic material in its plants, unlike many GMO products.
The European Union outlawing modified organisms, plus crops with Crispr
traits (as a result, the plants might not make it to the EU). Another issue
is seed pricing and getting it to farmers around the world, so the
wide-scale use is in question.

“As with any GMO crop the big question is how do the changes affect
nutritional quality and whether small farmers in developing countries would
be able to buy the seeds on a large enough scale to make a difference?”
wonders Dan Wenny, <> a
senior biologist who studies land-bird seed dispersal at the San Francisco
Bay Bird Observatory.

Right now, the Mississippi delta in Louisiana is a test zone for a first
batch of Ideal Plants in the wild, a major step to see if improved root
systems can mitigate sea level rise. Still, Salk researchers are sober to
the odds.

“Any restoration effort, unlike our *Arabidopsis* that can grow from seed
to seed in six weeks, these systems you plant them and then you wait. You
wait a long time,” Noel laments. “We can’t afford to have these experiments
not work.”

Are we past the point of no return? “The world’s not going to be the world
we live in right now,” Chory says. “I don’t know if we’re going to
eliminate the whole human species, but I think if we don’t do something
soon we will go that route. The misery index of humidity plus the heat will
get so high mammals can’t live.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists <>
says the tipping point is here.

“I don’t think it’s here yet,” Chory counters. Still, she concedes that
“migration is already happening. Canada is going to make out well in this.
The United States is not. We’re going to have a lot of changes in our

She adds: “The farmers are the ones we really have to convince. We can’t
continue to farm the way we farm any more. It can feed 8 to 10 billion
people but 50 years from now, there won’t be any good soil left so you’re
just putting the disaster off.”

Chory glances at a picture of her daughter, Katie.

“Look at me, I’m 64 years old. I’m not going to be around to see this
project go to fruition, I’m not going to be working at Salk, probably. That
urgency is there. The climate urgency is there. Every week there’s a new
climate disaster. How can we get there? We can’t really get there any
faster. I don’t know if we can do it, but I want to be part of the
solution. I don’t just want to sit around and complain.”

Adam Popescu is a Los Angeles writer; his debut novel, Nima
<>, publishes on 21 May