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The Harnessing Plants Initiative Leadership Team—which

includes Salk facultyWolfgang Busch, Joseph Ecker, Julie Law

and JosephNoel—aims to use a combination of cutting-edge

technologies to turbocharge plants’ ability to capture and store

in their roots larger amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and

keep it buried in the ground for hundreds of years. Chory led the

Institute’s involvement with The Audacious Project andwas

instrumental in the Harnessing Plants Initiative being chosen

to receive this support. AHowardHughesMedical Institute

investigator and a recipient of the 2018 Breakthrough Prize and

the 2018 Gruber Genetics Prize for her work in plant biology,

Chory presented the key elements of the initiative in a nine-minute

speech before an audience of 2,000 people attending the TED

annual conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, on April 16,

2019. (A video of Chory’s talk has over 1million views online.)

The key to the initiative’s plan lies in a substance called suberin

(one formof suberin is cork), a naturally occurring, carbon-rich

substance found in plant roots that resists decomposition.

By understanding and improving several genetic pathways in

plants, the Salk teamwill develop plants that growbigger and

more robust root systems containing an increased amount of

suberin, enabling the plants to absorb larger amounts of carbon

from the atmosphere and bury the carbon-rich suberin deep in

the soil.

By influencing the genes that control those traits and then

combining those characteristics in a single plant, the teamwill

develop Salk Ideal Plants

, whichwill be tested in a state-of-

the-art climate-simulation facility at Salk that is able tomimic

environmental conditions almost anywhere on Earth. This

facility will allow the scientists to uncover the genetic traits

that help plants survive in stressful environments—in the past,

present and future.

Once they have developedways to increase suberin inmodel

plants, the Salk teamwill transfer these genetic traits to six

prevalent crop plants. In addition tomitigating climate change,

the additional carbon in the soil will make the soil richer in

organicmatter andmake the plantsmore resilient to stress

caused by climate change, prompting better crop yields andmore

food for a growing global population. In a related but distinct

project, the teamwill also focus on restoration of coastal plants

that constitute some of themost powerful carbon sinks on the

planet. Restoring these systems will allow coastal plants to

thrive and storemore carbonwhile also reinvigorating fisheries;

rejuvenating coral reefs; and aiding in coastal-restoration efforts.

“Rising global temperatures are among the top challenges facing

humanity today, andwe are extremely grateful to The Audacious

Project donors for their generous support of Salk’s bold approach

tomeeting this unprecedented challenge,” says Rebecca Newman,

vice president of External Relations at Salk. “We have no doubt

that this funding will ensure these visionary scientists have the

critical resources needed to implement this truly audacious

initiative over the next five years.”

Donors through The Audacious Project include the ClaraWu

and Joe Tsai Foundation, Chris Larsen and Lyna Lam, Lyda

Hill Philanthropies, Genevieve and Steve Jurvetson, Rosamund

Zander andHansjörgWyss for theWyssMedical Foundation, Joe

Gebbia and Isabelle Boemeke, and others.

“Social entrepreneursmasterfully combine their ingenuity with

the issues that they care about most tomove the needle towards

a better world,” says Anna Verghese, executive director of The

Audacious Project, which aims to take on the world’s biggest and

most urgent challenges. “Salk’s innovative approach to tackling

climate change has been hiding in plain sight—in the biology of

the plants that surround us—andwe’re excited to help put their

bold plan into action.”

“If we can optimize plants’

natural ability to capture and

store carbon, we can develop

plants that not only have the

potential to reduce carbon

dioxide in the atmosphere but

that can also help enrich soils

and increase crop yields.”


Professor and Director of the Plant Molecular

and Cellular Biology Laboratory



FALL 2019