Super-Plants: Earth’s New Carbon Sponges on a Climate Rescue Mission

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In the fight against climate change, the world’s plants have been unsung heroes, absorbing billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide each year. Now, a team of scientists led by plant biologist Wolfgang Busch at the Salk Institute of Biology in San Diego is exploring how we might enhance this natural process. They’re investigating the potential to breed new strains of plants that could suck even more CO2 out of the air and store it away, thus helping to slow, and even potentially reverse, the impact of climate change.

The Salk Institute’s "Harnessing Plants Initiative" (HPI) is a massive collaborative effort involving over 85 scientists worldwide. Funded by high-profile donors such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Hess Corporation CEO John Hess, the initiative aims to improve the carbon absorption capacity of food crops. Given the vast quantities of wheat, rice, corn, and other crops grown globally, even a slight improvement in their CO2 absorption could significantly reduce the levels of this greenhouse gas in our atmosphere.

The Green Solution: Harnessing Plant Power to Combat Climate Change

Burning fossil fuels and human activities have significantly increased the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere. Fortunately, plants have been acting as our natural allies in this fight, absorbing billions of tons of these greenhouse gases annually. Now, scientists are exploring the potential of enhancing this natural process to combat climate change further.

The Promising Power of Photosynthesis

Plants, through photosynthesis, absorb and store carbon in their cells. This natural process offers a potential pathway to combating climate change. By breeding new strains of plants capable of absorbing more CO2, it may be possible to reduce the amount of this gas in the atmosphere, mitigating its impact on global temperatures.

Wolfgang Busch, a plant biologist at the Salk Institute of Biology, believes that even slight improvements in the carbon absorption capabilities of common crops like wheat, rice, and corn could have a significant impact. His team aims to harness the photosynthetic power of plants to slow, and potentially even reverse, climate change.

Harnessing Plants Initiative: A Global Effort

Over the past five years, Busch and his team at the Salk Institute’s "Harnessing Plants Initiative" (HPI) have been working towards this goal. This massive effort involves more than 85 scientists worldwide and has received over $85 million in funding from high-profile donors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Hess Corporation CEO John Hess.

The team is using gene-editing technologies to identify genes that can enhance carbon absorption in crop plants. Once these genes are identified, the crops can be produced using conventional breeding techniques, thus avoiding the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Carbon Capture and Sequestration: A Key to Curbing Climate Change

According to Busch, carbon capture and sequestration, along with emission curbs, are crucial components in the fight against climate change. Through the HPI, the team is exploring three traits related to root systems that could potentially enhance carbon sequestration: root mass, root depth, and a compound called suberin, a stable form of carbon naturally produced in roots.

If successful, this approach would not only help fight climate change but also improve soil content, creating a win-win situation. The team estimates that if this method is applied to six of the most prevalent crops (corn, rice, wheat, soybean, canola, and sorghum), it could sequester half of the excess emissions each year.

The Road Ahead: Challenges and Opportunities

While the initiative has shown promise, challenges remain. The team needs to identify ways to genetically enhance crops without reducing yield, making them appealing to farmers. Additionally, there is the challenge of incentivizing farmers to adopt these crops. Existing carbon markets could provide a potential solution, but mechanisms for measuring, reporting, and verifying the sequestered carbon need to be established.

Despite these challenges, Busch remains optimistic. He believes that with the support of major economies, the world can limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, although he acknowledges it will be hard. Harnessing the natural power of plants, it seems, could be a key strategy in the fight against climate change.


The Harnessing Plants Initiative exemplifies the potential of innovative, nature-based solutions to climate change. The initiative’s focus on enhancing the carbon sequestration capabilities of common crops could have a significant impact, potentially sequestering half of the excess emissions each year. However, the initiative also highlights the challenges involved in implementing such solutions, such as the need to incentivize adoption by farmers and establish robust carbon accounting mechanisms. Despite these challenges, the initiative offers a promising approach to mitigating the impacts of climate change.

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