Betsy Collins: Good morning and thank you for joining us today. I’m Betsy Collins, the director of donor relations at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and I manage the Salk Women in Science program. We are so pleased to partner with the Del Mar Garden Club to bring you an informative event focused on the study of plants, an initiative led by Salk professor Joanne Chory. Our topic today is fighting climate change with plants. We are grateful to each of you for spending the next our with us to learn to more about the Salk Institute and the Del Mar Garden Club and hear firsthand from Professor Chory.
Before I introduce our guests, I’d like to share a few logistics about today’s program. At the bottom of your screen is a bar and you can see the Q&A box. If you have any questions to Professor Chory or a technical issue, please type in this chat box and our Salk team will do what they can to resolve any issues.
It’s now my pleasure to welcome two of our Del Mar Garden Club members who partnered with Salk to bring you today’s events. Mara Bickett, Del Mar Garden CLub’s president. Mara.
Mara Bickett: Thank you Betsy. The Del Mar Garden Club is delighted to be partnering with the Salk Women in Science on our annual community outreach program. It’s an honor to have Professor Chory share her important research with our local garden clubs, neighbors and environmental organizations with over 265 registrants joining us today.
One of the benefits of the Zoom format over the past year is that our club has been able to go a little bit deeper into education and the science of plants with access to some remarkable speakers. We are proud to have the Del Mar Garden Club’s past president and one of our own women in science, UCSD researcher Dr. [Candace Cole] host the Q&A period after Professor Chory’s talk. As women in history month winds down, it’s exciting to hear about the historical work women like Professor Chory are doing to address some of the urgent problems our planet faces. I would now like to introduce Candace Cole. Candace.
Candace Kohl: Thank you Mara. This is a wonderful opportunity to participate in this joint event and to hear Professor Chory speak on her latest research. I would like to give special thanks to my dear friend Catherine Rivier, professor emerita and a founding member of the Women in Science Program at Salk for her help in orchestrating this collaboration as well as for her tireless dedication to encouraging and supporting women in science. Betsy will now continue with the introduction.
Betsy Collins: Thank you Mara and Candace and all of the members of the Del Mar Garden Club for partnering with Salk Women in Science. Before we introduce Professor Chory I would like to provide a little history and information about Salk for those of you who are joining us for the first time. As an organization, Salk has a long history of virology and vaccine research, including the tremendous work by Jonas Salk himself, that led to the discovery of the polio vaccine in 1955. In search of a place to build a biological research center, Dr. Salk was encouraged by then San Diego mayor and polio survivor Charles Dail to come to La Jolla. The city of San Diego donated 27 acres of land and the March of Dimes contributed $20 million to develop the institute.
I’d also like to share with you the many ways to get involved. We offer many programs such as those you see listed on the screen and serving as an advisory committee, attending an event, or supporting groundbreaking research are great ways to get involved. As I mentioned earlier [inaudible] Salk Women in Science Program, and our mission is to support the advancement of women in science and technology. The program provides crucial support to the advancement of women scientists via research grants, travel awards, and child care subsidies. We offer many events to educate the community about the groundbreaking research being conducted at Salk as well as programs to connect with the next generation of great scientists.
In 2018, we established the first Women in Science Ursula Bellugi Trailblazer Award which Joanne Chory was nominated for this past year. However due to the pandemic, we have been unable to celebrate this achievement with her so congratulations Joanne.
Joanne Chory: Thank you Betsy.
Betsy Collins: Without further ado, it’s now my distinct pleasure to introduce our speaker for today’s presentation, Professor and Director Joanne Chory. Professor Chory joined Salk in 1988 where she is the director of the Plant Biology Laboratory, a Howard Hughes medical investigator, she holds the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology as well as directs the Harnessing Plants Initiative. She is known for her studies that have shown how plants alter their shape and size is response to changes in the environment. Dr. Chory has served on numerous advisory and editorial boards and has received multiple awards. Please welcome Professor Joanne Chory. Joanne?
Joanne Chory: Thank you Betsy. Let me get set up here. Here we go.
So just let me … I’ll give a plug for the Women in Science program while we’re waiting this to launch. It’s a great program and all the young women really love having it as part of the Salk’s philanthropic pool of programs. So it’s been very successful due to all the hard work of Betsy and her team so thank you Betsy for doing that for the few women scientists at Salk. [inaudible]. Okay, here we go. Okay. All right.
Joanne Chory: Okay. Excuse me. So today I’m going to tell you about this new initiative we have in the last few years at the Salk, and it involves a plant team of scientists and we just have … A very small group of people. What we decided to do was actually really get involved in one of the world’s biggest problems and that’s climate change. We had an idea about how we could use plants to actually fight climate change. So I’m going to tell you about what I did today and how far we’ve gone with progress on the project.
So as I said here, it takes a global village to solve a global problem. So climate change is a global problem for sure and right now we are at a crossroads. Wait a second … Where am I? That’s not the slide I want. Wait. I skipped a slide.
Joanne Chory: Okay, so we’re at a crossroads and humanity is at a crossroads. We have a burgeoning population and this has caused a huge demand on the Earth. So we have increased demand for food, feed, fuel and fiber. We have effects from global warming which stress out our crops that we need to feed people and we also have a lot of collapsed ecosystems around the planet. This is all a result of this increased CO2 emissions that we have because we have so many people on the planet, almost eight billion right now. So … Let me see if I can do this [inaudible] … See I skipped a slide here. Oh there it is, I’m sorry. Okay.
So what I want to tell you is that this is an urgent problem. Our action or inaction in the next 10 years is going to determine our fate. The fate of humanity on the planet. So let me tell you how we came up with this idea. So we’re plant geneticists and you’ve all heard about CO2 and CO2 is a greenhouse gas and it’s kind of like the antagonist in a novel, right? So it’s the bad guy, but when I think about CO2 as a plant geneticist, I think about it as a good thing. It’s like fertilizer for the plants and so let me tell you … This is because plants take CO2 out of the air and they suck up water from their root systems and then they use the energy of sunlight and when they do this, they make biomass. So we’re a carbon-based planet, all of the biomass … All of you and I and everything around us is carbon-based and all that CO2 that’s in the atmosphere is what gives rise to all the biomass on earth.
So the biomass is a problem because we have this global cycle and we don’t have to go over the numbers so much today but every year, photosynthesis takes up a lot of gigatons of CO2 and then plants grow and then they die and people die and a lot of the CO2 that plants have taken up gets released back to the atmosphere and that’s part of the problem.
The big part of the problem is us. So here we are, 37 gigatons released by humans each year, and what that’s done is set this global cycle, this carbon cycle, out of whack. Okay, so let me show you how out of whack it is. Okay, so here it is over here in the upper left hand corner you can see every year, we put up 37 gigatons but 18 gigatons are in excess of what the planet can actually do something with it. So this has now caused global warming and all of this was documented by a colleague of ours who lives in Del Mar, David Keeling and the famous Keeling curves. As you can see, that curve goes up and it’s been going up since the Industrial Revolution and it’s over … The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in parts per million is now like 420 or more and when humans evolved it was 260 and when the Industrial Revolution started it was 280. So we’re way up above. So not only do we have to not put up more CO2, we have to actually take some out that we’ve already put up. So that’s going to be a big issue for us and that’s what our initiative is concerned with, that aspect of CO2 in the atmosphere ready. So let me show you what’s next.
So here’s our idea. So we have this idea that the whole problem is a distribution problem and all we need to do is get plants to put a little more carbon into stable molecules that don’t get broken down every year when growing season is done and so we have a molecule and that’s called suberin and it’s a natural plant polymer and it’s known to be very stable. So here is a normal plant on the left hand side of the screen and you can see the plant is sucking up CO2 from the atmosphere, it’s taking in the water and stuff and then at the end of the growing season, the plant dies and a lot of the CO2 gets back up in the atmosphere.
Here’s our idea. That idea is if we modify plants just a little bit, we’ll have these ideal plants and these ideal plants will suck up the same amount of CO2 but less CO2 would be released back out to the atmosphere because we’ve now redistributed it into the stable polymers which are in the roots of plants. So we’ve figured in order to change our plants who are very good athletes into Olympic kinds of athletes, we have to change a few traits and so here’s the traits we are going to change.
So we want the plants to make more extensive roots. This is because these plants would be more resilient but they’ll also be fixing more carbon into the root and the root is the part of the plant we’re interested in because we’re going to leave that in the soil when the plants have done their growing season. So we’re going to do this all with crop plants, I should tell you this. These are food plants. This is because these plants take up almost all the arable land on earth and so we’re very interested in growing these plants everywhere and so we want to do it with crops.
Okay, so we need to have plants with bigger roots. We need to have plants that have deeper roots and this is because we want the plants to bury this carbon that we’re sticking in this molecule suberin deep down in the soil for us so that it will stay there and it will not go back into the atmosphere. Okay, and then the third thing is we need to have what we call recalcitrant bio-polymers. So plants make a lot of these bio-polymers. You might know lignin. Lignin is what paper is made out of. That’s pretty stable but this molecule suberin is really stable. So that’s the one we’re going to shoot for and let me tell you more about suberin now.
Okay, so we have model plants and model plants are good because these are the plants that we’ve used to actively work on all the mechanisms by which plants do what they do. This is a model plant that we use, Arabidopsis thaliana, and we’ve used this for a long time. It’s a tiny little plant with a tiny little seed, it’s in the mustard family. It has a small genome and it has good genetics for looking at segregation of traits.
So you can also see here that it’s actually a really good model to study natural variation of root growth. So these are Arabidopsis plants that we harvested from around the world and brought them to the lab and you can see how the roots are growing. These are all in the same time lapse. The roots are growing at way different rates and some of these make deep roots, some of these make shallow roots and so I mean these are all good material for us to try to get at the genes underlying the traits for more and deeper roots.
Okay, so … Let me see what comes next. Okay so we’ve made a lot of progress since we proposed this idea of finding some genes in controlling these traits of more and deeper roots and more recalcitrant carbon-rich bio-polymers. So here I’m going to show you more and deeper … [inaudible] … I’m showing you suberin first.
Okay, so what is suberin you’re saying? So suberin is basically cork. So there’s cork down in the lower right hand corner and you can see it there and so cork is really recalcitrant to being broken down. Those are all dead cells in cork and so suberin also grows in the skin of citrus fruits. It’s in avocado skins, it’s in potato skins, but every plant makes it in their roots. It’s the root suberin that we decided we were most interested in because we thought we could pack a little more in there and then the plant would break it down.
So anyways, this is why we picked suberin. So this is the structure of a suberin bio-polymer, okay? What you see in the middle, all those little black dots, those are all carbon, so this is like the greatest carbon storing device we could find. It has very little oxygen which is shown in red. So microbes like to come in and decompose plants and oxygen so we red, you’re going to see those things get biodegraded but in the middle part of this molecule, you’ll see there’s almost no reds at all. So this part of the biomolecule is very stable and it’s also carbon-rich, there’s hundreds of carbons there.
This is what we want to use to store the extra carbon. So how are we going to get plants to make more suberin? It turns out suberin … This is all work from other labs that had been done a while ago now. Suberin is actually … Has two rich layers in the root. Okay, so one way to make more suberin is to make more suberin-rich tissue layers and we can do that actually. So we have this one layer called the endodermis and we now have that as a double layer. We can [inaudible] make that become more and more prominent and then the other way you can make more suberin is to get more suberin in each cell that’s making it. Let me show you what that looks like.
Okay, so here we see a cross-section through a root, so you’re looking … Cutting through the root this way and the root’s going down and you can see where these red cells are that those are cells that contain suberin because now we’re using a dye that’s specific for suberin. You can see that there are two nice sets of cells in concentric circles that are the suberin containing cells.
It turns out if we just make more suberin everywhere, the plant will basically kill itself, it stabs itself to death so we can’t just do that. We have to make cells that want to have suberin in them to become these suberin-containing cells. We found some genes that control that trait and so now we can put those genes into crop plants, which is the plan, and that’s going to take us another couple of years and then we’re going to be able to measure it in field trials whether or not these plants are actually storing more carbon. Okay, so that’s an example of this one plant, lotus japonicus.
Okay, so how do we get more suberin per cell? So suberin is this big molecule and has a complicated biosynthetic pathway but you can see from this pathway, there’s this biosynthesis, there’s assembly of the monomer and then this [inaudible] polymer and you have to secrete it from the cell. So there’s a lot of places you can interfere with this pathway to get more suberin per cell, and we’ve done it. So we’ve done it and now we have to move those genes into crop plants.
Okay, so can we get these other traits? Can we get more and deeper roots? The answer is yes, so here’s an … I’m going to show you an example first of a deeper root.
So here’s a plant that is what we call a wild type plant which means it came from the wild and it is what it is but anyways, this plant is making shallow roots so you can see up there in the top of the soil is where suberin is staining the root red, this is a cut through the pot. So this is a shallow root that’s meandering along the top of the soil. If we knock out one gene or take out its function or we put too much of that gene product into these plants and we get the same result … This is called gene editing and you can see what happens. We’ve turned that shallow root into a deep root and so there are ways to do this and there are multiple ways that we can do this and we’re working on them. So in order to do this, I just wanted to show you one fancy bit of equipment that we [inaudible]. So we have a CT scanner of our own and this allows us not to have to cut through pots so we can go out and look at all the natural variation that nature has made in deep and shallow roots and just ask what are the genes that contain those traits.
So anyways, so here’s how we do it. We have this x-ray scanner and it’s a CT scanner, it’s a huge piece of equipment and all the plants come in in a five gallon pot and they go riding through this machine, they take an image and the image has to be modified a lot in order to get something that really looks like a root. So this requires people with many different traits. We need the big brutes who carry the five gallon pot and then we have the people who are modifying the images that come off the scanner and they’re more computational, and so … They’re kind of wimpy people, I guess.
Okay, so that’s our operation to get deeper roots. Let me see, okay. So can we get more roots? Here we go … There are multiple ways to increase root biomass and here’s two ways just shown on these slides. So here you can see on the left hand side the third plant from the left is a plant that’s over-expressing this gene that we think is helping the plant to make big roots and so it’s over-expressing this gene in both the shoot and the root but we [inaudible] over-express it just in the root and we got a much more specific response so we’re probably going to do that with that gene.
On the right hand side, you can see … Here’s another gene that we’ve over-expressed in the shoot it turns out but it makes more root. So that plant makes twice the amount of root than the plant from which it came and it’s almost genetically identical except for one gene.
Okay, we have multiple ways to get all of these traits. That’s the bottom line and that’s what we’ve been working on the last two years. We’ve been working hard. So where do we do our work? Well, we have a nice greenhouse up in North County that we don’t really like to say exactly where it is, I’ll show you what it looks like. Wait a minute, I skipped it, yeah, okay … Here’s our greenhouse, it’s a 10,000 square foot greenhouse. We’re growing some of these plants that you can see, like this I can’t really see what’s growing back in the big ones but … In this greenhouse we’re growing all the typical crop plants that are grown all around the earth. Because we need a lot of land to do this experiment because if you want to affect a global change, you need to have a lot of land. So there’s 1.6 billion hectares of arable land on Earth. We need about 500 million of hectares to be planting our ideal seeds. We have a big job ahead of us to get all those farmers on board. We’ll see if we can do it.
Okay, so now we’re getting into the greenhouse, we’re taking these genes from this little plant Arabidopsis, putting them into the major crop plants, things like corn and wheat and rice, the big calorie plants, and then we have to do field trials to show they’re safe and everything else, right? And that we haven’t lost yield so we start that in the greenhouse and then we go to various field sites and here’s our field sites that we currently have operating, we have four of them. One’s in Central Valley and we have one down in Yuma, we have some more towards the East Coast, one is in Kentucky and one is Indiana. We’ll have about 20 of these sites in the next year or two.
So we start to put all these plants out because we have to see if we’re actually really pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. So this is going to take a few years of field trials. Okay, so … This just shows a field experiment going on at the Yuma site I think, okay so …
So there are so co-benefits of planting these kinds of plants in the soil. So having big roots gives you increased soil carbon and plant stress-resistance. You also get … Agriculture is not sustainable at all right now and we’ve had to feed so many people for so long that it’s become a real drain on our agricultural lands. So we can improve soil health by getting more carbon back into those soils. Yuma is almost completely deplete of carbon in the soil right now. They can’t grow anything there but bales of hay and things. Okay, so we can improve soil health, we can increase resistance to drought, flooding and disease. We think we’ll get consistent yield and productivity per hectare if we have these bigger, more robust roots and it also improves water and nutrient use efficiency. We need to do that because agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Okay, all right.
So we’re on an aggressive timeline to meet the climate crisis challenge. Just because if we don’t have something out there in 30 years, removing carbon on a global scale, it’s going to take a lot of different technologies. There’s a lot of talk about cutting emissions and that’s really important to do and we all need to cut our carbon footprint. But we also need, as I said at the beginning of my talk, we also need to take out the carbon that is already up there, some of it at least and so we have an aggressive challenge to do … So the first five years we spend on research and development and on gene discovery. That’s what we’re in the middle of right now and we have a pretty good and powerful program going in that. We knew we could do that because that’s what we’ve done for the last 30 years in the plant biology lab at Salk but it’s the next five years that are going to be the really challenging ones. Because we have to optimize all our genes so that they’re giving us really good yields and stuff so we’re not starving people as a result of removing CO2 from the atmosphere. But anyways, so we have to get this right.
During that period, we have to get farmers on board to buy our seeds. If they don’t want to plant them, we won’t be growing them. So we need 500 million acres as I said … Or hectares. In Years 10 through 15 and beyond is when we go full-scale. So we really like this program because removing CO2 from the atmosphere it turns out to be a very expensive process. So what we do is take advantage of all the agricultural infrastructure that’s already out there so every country protects their farmers, right? So they have farm subsidies and things like that and so it can be easily set up to have a carbon bank. If we have a carbon bank, if people are charged for using too big a footprint, then they’ll go and find our farmers and they’ll say, "We need to buy the CO2 that you fixed on your land." So this is going to be the way this all works we hope. That’s all going to be coming into play after year ten so that will be about 2030. Hopefully we can do that. That’s the real challenge for us.
Okay, so why are we doing this now and why didn’t we get involved in this before now? All right so … It’s because of where the field is. So molecular biologists like myself have learned a lot of mechanisms about how plants grow and how they’re related to each other and stuff. So that has brought about revolution in plant genetics and then that brought about the revolution in genomics which allowed to sequence the genomes from all these plants. There’s 400,000 species of flowering plants on Earth and so it’s a very diversified lineage when [inaudible] became multicellular, plants … We had to know that about the plants so we could see how they related to each other and this would tell us how to go about getting the genes that we need to put into the different plants.
Then finally, this precision breeding. This has all really been very important so you may have heard of Norman Borlaug. Norman Borlaug was a very famous scientist and he’s known for saving a billion people’s lives and that’s because of the Green Revolution. He made dwarf wheat which didn’t blow over in the wind and that was a really big thing and he selected for that trait by doing processes among wheat plants in Mexico.
Okay, so but the other thing he did is Norman Borlaug basically single-handedly allowed us to grow plants anywhere on Earth. So normally plants are restricted where they can grow by latitude, but what he did was find mutants in what’s called the circadian clock. So this is how we can grow a plant anywhere on Earth. So this is great because now we have all those seeds from all these [inaudible] and this allowed us now to really go ahead and tackle a problem this big.
So now you might say, "Well why are we tackling climate change at the Salk Institute? Aren’t you guys in this place where …" Let me get back to this, sorry. "Where you do biomedical research." Yeah, we’re at a place that does biomedical research but we … The [inaudible] is inspired by Jonas Salk himself and so here’s a few quotes from him and these are quotes that I think … They really motivate us, right? So "Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make those dreams a reality." That’s something we all read every day, when we come in. On this left hand side, this beautiful building sighted right from the Equinox, the fall and the spring, to have the sun and moon set over it. It’s just a beautiful creative site to be on and so it just makes you think you can do stuff. You begin to believe in yourself when you’re on the site, and another famous quote of Jonas which is very relevant for the climate change proposals that we have on the board is, "Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors." What can i say? If you have kids, you don’t want to leave this Earth in the shape that it’s in right now.
That inspiration and the challenge by one of our former presidents led to this vision. So here’s our vision, so this is out in the desert. On the right hand side, we have windmills and this is a way of making electricity that doesn’t leave a big carbon footprint. That’s a good thing so it will cut emissions, and then we have right beside it, we have sorghum. Sorghum is a relative of corn and it’s a great plant to grow because it doesn’t need a lot of nutrients and so this is going to allow us we hope to take some of this badland that hasn’t really been kept up and San Diego has a lot of it around us and grow plants like sorghum so we can actually … It’s used as feed for most of the world though Africa uses it in its food also but basically sorghum is just out there growing on marginal land so we want to plant and we want to develop a variety of sorghum that would be ideal and allow us to fix a lot of carbon [inaudible] the soil.
So we have a good core team and this core team was driven by Mechanism. Here we are and we’re all faculty members at the Salk and you can see we have a lot of people named Joe on our team. We have Joe Noel, Joe Ecker and myself, Jo Chory, sometimes I’m called that, and then we have Julie Law, Wolfgang Busch and Todd Michael who round out the root team. So it’s a great group. We all really are passionate about this project and we hope that we can be part of the change that will save the planet for future generations.
So that’s what we’re doing and so I want to thank you for coming to the webinar today and I think that’s it. So I’ll take question I guess.
Betsy Collins: Joanne, thank you for a magnificent insight into plants. We’ll now begin the Q&A portion of the program led by Candace Kohl and Joanne Chory. Candace?
Candace Kohl: Thank you Betsy. What a wonderful program and so informative and so upliftingly positive in terms of what the future possibilities are to change some of the problems that we are dealing with today. I have a few questions here that have come in through pre-registration and some questions that have just been asked. If I don’t get to everybody’s question, I apologize. We are going to try and answer some of them after the program and there will be a frequently asked questions section, it will be sent out to everybody who registered.
The first question that I have for Joanne is please tell us how you came to choose the science of plant biology as a profession and since March is women’s history month, did you have any particular women mentors and share a little bit about them if you did.
Joanne Chory: Okay, all right. How did I pick plants? Well it was 1983 I think. I was finishing my PhD and I wanted to work on something … I was a microbiologist, I worked in bacteria up until that point and so I wanted to go and learn something about eukaryotes, these higher organisms but human biology wasn’t very far advanced and then the model systems for human are all the things like Drosophila the fruit fly and things like that and so those fields are very competitive, way too competitive for me. I went and visited some plant labs and they didn’t know anything about how plants grow or anything. So I’m just like, "This is a field I could make a difference."
So I went there and it was a little naïve to think that I could because when you don’t have any information you can’t ask a very sophisticated question, but we tried it, we asked simple questions at first and we were able to find out a lot of pathways of plants that allow them to grow so that’s how I picked plants and stuck with it.
One of my mentors, I don’t … Both of my advisors, my post-doc advisor as well as my PhD advisor were men and they were both good mentors to me, I don’t think they had any bias against me as a woman even though it was the 80s and people are still smoking in the lab, you remember what that was like. But anyways, so let me think … I think of mentors as coming from all walks of life. I don’t have one mentor really. And so I view my daughter as a mentor in some ways, right? Because I come home and I tell her about stuff that bugged me at work and she would just tell me like it is. "You’re being a baby about whatever, you know?" So I like to be told how it is and because she’s my daughter and not my graduate student, she’ll tell me stuff. So she’s a mentor in a way and I had a post-doc who while she was in my lab, published this beautiful paper, solved a big problem and had two kids. She was lucky that she had no complications with her pregnancy and stuff but I really admire that because she really just focused and did her work and got a great job and left my lab on normal schedules. I thought she was a great role model for everybody because she just figured out how to get it done.
I have those kinds of mentors and they’re often young women. I find young women to be very interesting, so anyways … They’re not baby boomers in any sense of the world. They have a whole new way of looking at the world, so …
Candace Kohl: Will we be able to utilize this information in our home gardens?
Joanne Chory: I think that’s idea eventually. I think at first we really need to get into … We, the people at Salk need to get into the major crops because we need a lot of land to really get billions of tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, right? But I think that would be a great idea. I think we should get Home Depot on board, you know? Have them sell carbon sequestering plants and people will feel good about it. Even though it might not take out gigatons it will take out … It will be involved in taking out tons, right? So
Candace Kohl: Will these plants be able to propagate themselves and will farmers need to buy new seeds every year?
Joanne Chory: Many of the crop plants that I’m talking about are hybrids, right? They have to buy new seeds so all the corns that’s growing with the high yield, they’re all hybrids. So you have to have some farmers just do the crosses and have them ready for the seed the farmers are buying. So things like rice, no. We’ll grow rice in the farm and we’ll save some of the seed and we’ll just grow it again. It’s not going to be something they have to buy every year necessarily.
Candace Kohl: Okay. The next question and seven people have asked this is in various forms, since these wonderful improvements in the plants are caused by genetic engineering, is this going to be a difficulty in getting the farmers and the public to accept it and how could this be addressed?
Joanne Chory: Yeah. This is always a big issue for us. Because GMOs really bother people. Some of the crops they don’t even allow GMOs so there are no GMO wheat. So that whole community has decided not to make genetically-modified wheat. In that case we have to do it by some other method and the way we’re doing it is by bringing this natural variation from wild strains of wheat into the domesticated strains? So you do crosses like Norman Borlaug did and you’re trying to get the genes for these traits that I was talking about, bigger roots. We have a bigger root gene already from wheat that came out of a cross and so we’ll do it that way and gene editing is not considered GMO so if you go in and modify a gene in the context of its own genome, the FDA and the EPA and the USDA have all said it’s fine, it’s not a GMO.
So in the United States, 96% of all corn grown is already GMO. I think soybeans 91% GMO, so those two crops are among our six crops that we want to grow. We’ll probably do GMO in the United States, unless the rest of the world is still objecting so much that they won’t accept carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere from a GMO plant. But they’re already GMO but we figured we will probably just continue to do that with those two crops.
Candace Kohl: Okay. So this question has been asked in several forms too. The increased root mass and the increased suberin in the roots will stay in the soil, that’s the idea of keeping the carbon in the soil. One question in this area is how long will that actually last in the soil before it degrades, eventually it will degrade, and the other question is does this impact the soil for planting future crops or if you till the soil does it then degrade faster? In general just please address the whole issue about the root to the soil.
Joanne Chory: Right. So you can’t till the soil. We’ll just say that. So you leave the root down there in the soil and so it’s going to depend on the soil chemistry. It’s a very complicated equation, right? How much carbon and how long it will last. Permanence in soil is a very hard thing to measure, right? Because carbon passes through. It doesn’t all just sit there. It rains and then it goes downstream so how do you actually show that you really have increased the permanence of carbon in that soil? That’s something we’re struggling with right now and we have a lot of soil collaborators. This is because none of us are experts on soils and soil is very important in this equation.
Let me see what else I can say about this. So some people think … It’s a lower quality of carbon sequestered if it’s not permanent. So Bill Gates is a person who has written about this. We get worried about that because all the nature-based solutions are not permanent. All right, so how do we get around that? We view ourselves more as not … Like the permanent end of the carbon users. We want to just bridge a gap between getting emissions down to net equals zero and where we are right now. If we have permanence in the soil in a few hundred years, when sugars are all being turned over in a couple of years, I think we’ll be fine. That would be good.
So we know suberin is long-lived in soils like peat and peat is where most of the carbon in soils is stored. Soils have a tremendous capacity as sinks for carbon. I don’t know how much you guys ever think about this, but you need soil or you can’t have people, right? Soil and people go hand in hand. I think we have to really think about it that way. So we have this tremendous sink, we have to get it into the … I don’t think Yuma is going to be a great place to store carbon necessarily because I think you need some carbon in the soil in order to store more at a reasonable rate, right? So it’s going to be the richest soils that we’re going to store the carbon? But yeah, that’s definitely. Those are very good questions. There’s always microbes that live in the soil that contribute to the soil carbon as you guys probably know. So anyways, we have to take all that into account as well, so we have a big challenge to show what we’ve seen, is it really going to happen? Because right now it’s all just a thought experiment, right? We’ll see.
Candace Kohl: It’s more than a thought experiment. You’ve done lots of work to [inaudible] concept in this. As kind of corollary to that, we all hear a lot about the tundra melting and there’s lots of carbon that’s stored in the tundra and there’s a lot of methane that could be released that way. Is this something you thought about at all?
Joanne Chory: We’re not really working on methane. You’re going to have to have a different solution for methane. But anyways, yeah no, that’s going to be … They’re calling these things carbon bombs, right? If those things happen, I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s going to be a disaster. SIO, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, where Keeling made all those measurements of carbon and I think his wife is still in the Del Mar Garden Club I’m pretty sure. She gives gifts I see every now and then in her husband’s name. So anyways, their son is now carrying on that … But anyways, what was my point here? I’m sorry, I got distracted. What were we talking about?
Candace Kohl: We’re talking about the permafrost and the –
Joanne Chory: Oh yeah.
Candace Kohl: [inaudible] all that.
Joanne Chory: So that’s something to really worry about but I don’t know what we can do because I think it’s already … A path has been set in motion. I think the ocean rising is going to be a very serious problem. Del Mar is going to have a really serious problem because the north side of town is all below sea level, so I don’t know
Candace Kohl: What is your experience with gardening and is this stuff that you would use in your own garden?
Joanne Chory: I haven’t used it in my own garden so far, what we have, but I have an herb garden at my house right now. Melissa again, she’s the gardener. She’s my next door neighbor, [inaudible]. Anyways, she’s always out in her garden, but my daughter would say I know the inside of plants better than the outside. So I mean I’m always grinding them up and looking at their DNA. But if you put a canola plant in front of me, would I recognize it? Maybe not. I don’t know anything. That’s pretty bad. But yeah, I’m an urban kid, so I didn’t grow up around farms or anything. It’s interesting. I would say I’m not the best gardener. I should join the club and get a few tips.
Candace Kohl: You would be welcome, you would be welcome and Melissa is certainly a stalwart of our group. This is a plant question, I have no idea if this is in your purview or not. Somebody who’d be interested in knowing if any of our native plants are especially beneficial for fighting climate change.
Joanne Chory: Yeah. I think we don’t know the answer to that. I think some of those would be pretty resilient plants and they would be good for fighting climate change I think. So yeah. But I don’t know which ones exactly.
Candace Kohl: Yeah. Certainly one of the important things … I mean what you’re doing is … The carbon offsetting is extremely important, but equally important is improving and increasing food production. Those two goals, how do you see those fitting together?
Joanne Chory: I think they fit exactly together because that’s why we’re … The crops are actually going to be a really good source of carbon sequestration I think. It’s something we have to be careful about because we don’t really know what the negatives are going to be but at least with plants, if something negative starts happening, you just quit growing them. Or you pull them out of the ground and just burn them or whatever. I don’t think we’re going to create a major global crisis by planting more corn that has more suberin in it. So anyways … That’s another reason why we like our initiative. Some people are talking about modifying the atmosphere with sulfuric acid or whatever and so if you do that … You can’t go back. So yeah.
Candace Kohl: This is somebody else who’s asking a planty question. Can you use this technique to increase the amount of pollen on a plant to improve pollinators’ lives?
Joanne Chory: Yeah. I think … You can use the techniques of breeding and trait analysis like what we’re doing for different traits. I think if you wanted to increase the ability of a pollinator to find plants, I think you would be offering different traits, right? You’d be offering traits on the flower but yeah, you can do that. Nature’s been pretty good at it. Look at Darwin’s finches.
Candace Kohl: You might have addressed this specifically and I might not have quite caught it. Do you have any idea if we were able to get the farmers on board with this, what amount of carbon would be able to be sequestered with this kind of a technique that you’re …
Joanne Chory: Yeah, I’m glad you asked that because I took that slide out but I should have said the answer to that without showing how we get to the number but anyways we think we can take out four to eight gigatons per year.
Candace Kohl: Wow.
Joanne Chory: Yeah. If we got it to 500 million hectares, so we’ll see.
Candace Kohl: Are some crops more amenable to this kind of modification than others?
Joanne Chory: Yeah. Definitely. So some crops are really easy to transform and make it to a GMO, but some of them are much more difficult and very few people can actually do the experiments. So that becomes an issue when you have to use some of them because we are using some of them that are difficult to actually do the transformations.
I have this one guy who worked for me for the last 30 years and he has the golden hands and he can regenerate canola and make a transgenic canola where very few people on Earth can do that. Because when you make a transgenic plat like that, you have to go through callus, right? So you go through the callus, then you have to regenerate a plantlet. So that’s where it sometimes takes a really long time.
For something like Arabidopsis, that little marble plant that we use to do all these studies, that is totally easy to transform. So you don’t have to even make callus. You’re just transforming the flower directly and it gets inherited in the progeny.
Candace Kohl: Your test farms … I don’t know if you call them farms. Your test plots of these plants, is this in collaboration with other universities or institutes?
Joanne Chory: Yeah, so the Yuma site is a University of Arizona site. We’re using a Purdue site in Indiana. We’re using a University of Kentucky site and the one in Central Valley is a commercial site but that one also is … Again, the commercial site in some ways is better than the university sites because they have everything set up and ready to go. University sites tend to be a little more easygoing, so whoever was there last, the field is as good as what they left it. So yeah, we have to be careful about how we choose the sites too.
So we have a couple of soil experts who go in there and they’re taking measurements now before we actually plant any of these plants. Because we’re just making those crop plants that we want to put out in the fields now so they’ll be ready next year, some of them will be ready next yet to put into the field trials.
Candace Kohl: Fantastic.
Joanne Chory: Yeah.
Candace Kohl: Absolutely fantastic. So here’s a question. Have you partnered with anyone in the movement for eating a more plant-based diet?
Joanne Chory: No, we haven’t taken a stand on that kind of stuff.
Candace Kohl: Okay.
Joanne Chory: I try to but I still eat meat sometimes I have to admit.
Candace Kohl: Oh, I know what you mean. There are so many good questions here. We have one final question that I’m going to ask at this point and I do appreciate everybody for asking all these great questions and that is as a closing question what are the next steps that you see in your work in making this come to fruition? Pun not intended.
Joanne Chory: I think it’s what I’ve been saying. We have to get it out there on a lot of land. That’s going to be the real challenge. We’re trying to the change makers out there, you know? So we have some funding from Jeff Bezos, so I asked if I could call him recently because I think Amazon is a great example of globalizing. So I asked him, "How do we do this?" He said, "Be nice to everybody because you don’t know who you’re going to need." When you’re early, you have to just be nice to everybody. I guess that’s what he did. That’s good advice I guess so we take that kind of advice and we also have other people who are kind of the thought makers in these fields and we try talking to them as much as we can because we’re all scientists, we’re a bunch of nerds, we sit around in the lab all day thinking everybody thinks like a scientist but people don’t all think like scientists. You have to get every now and then. This is causing us to get out, so that’s good. It’s totally different than running my lab though, I’ll tell you that.
The way I ran my lab the last 30 years is totally different than this project. So it’s been a real challenge. I don’t remember being this busy in my whole career. Just to keep everything straight.
Candace Kohl: Well best wishes with it all going forward and thank you so much for a fascinating presentation. It’s been just a wonderful hour to spend with you, I wish we could spend a couple more. Wish we could have two of your lab and nobody’s touring anything. There are many questions and we don’t have time to answer any more of them. In a follow-up email, Salk will be sending you a list of frequently asked questions and some other information and we’ll do our best to answer any questions that you have today that were not addressed in the presentation. Thanks for being such an attentive and enthusiastic audience and I will now turn the microphone back to Betsy for a few closing remarks.
Betsy Collins: Thank you Candace and thank you Joanne, that was a wonderful presentation and that hour flew by. As many of you know, philanthropy is the catalyst for new discoveries, new treatments and new drugs. We hope that what you heard today will inspire you to become engaged at Salk and the research as well as inspire you to create your own gardens. As Joanne has shared, the important science is continuing and we so look forward to seeing many of you back at our campus when we can open our doors again to the community as well as tours. In conclusion, I’d like to thank our generous friends and community who support both organizations, a special thank you to the Del Mar Garden Club for providing today’s platform, special thank you to my colleague [Serena Patterson] for helping us gather all this information. Again Joanne thank you so much. In the next week we’ll be sending you an email that will contain this program that you can forward to your friends along with our contact information and we would really appreciate getting your feedback. This concludes our program for today and thank you so much for attending.