Suberin could save us from climate change

In only five per cent of the world’s farmlands grew highly-enriched suberin crops it could remove up to fifty per cent of all the CO2 injected into the air.
Image credit: Jake Gard on Unsplash
Date:4 December 2017 Tags:, , , ,

Breakthrough Prize Winner Joanne Chory is designing plants that could take incredible amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere using suberin.

By Avery Thompson

Plants are incredible organisms. They tend to be very simple, only requiring a little CO2, water, and oxygen in order to live. However, they’re capable of tremendous diversity and adaptability. Plants can grow big or small, fat or skinny, entirely based on some simple factors like how much light there is.

The research

Dr. Joanne Chory, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and HHMI, has made a career out of uncovering these factors. She develops them into simple rules, and manipulates them to create big changes in plants. Her lab has spent decades studying just how plants can learn and adapt to different kinds of information. Along the way they uncovered a great deal of information about which genes affect plant growth.

Now, she’s using that information to create new plant varieties that could pull incredible amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere. And this could dramatically reduce the effects of climate change. For her work, she’s being honored with the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Chory’s plan involves a compound called suberin, which most people are familiar with as cork. This substance has a lot of unique properties that could make it useful for storing carbon from the atmosphere. It’s primarily composed of carbon and it’s not biodegradable, which means it will last a very long time. Suberin can last for “a few thousand years,” according to Chory.

What is suberin

Suberin is mostly produced by cork trees, but it is also produced in small amounts in the roots of many plants. Using simple cross-breeding techniques, Chory can easily grow plants that produce much more of it. Currently, Chory’s lab is looking at breeding high levels of suberin production into chickpea and other harvest plants.

“If we can help plants make more of it than they usually make, and we put that ability into plants that we’ve already selected that have deeper and bigger roots, we think we can make a plant make 20 times the amount of suberin that it normally makes,” says Chory.

That much suberin is great for getting rid of CO2, because it isn’t biodegradable. Growing tons of suberin in plant roots means sequestering huge amounts of CO2 in the ground. Then, if the suberin stays there for thousands of years, it means less carbon in our atmosphere. Suberin-producing plants could take a lot of human-produced CO2 out of the carbon cycle for good.

By the numbers

How much CO2 are we talking about here? “We did the numbers,” says Chory, “and the numbers say you need about five per cent of the world’s farmland growing highly-enriched suberin crops to fix fifty per cent of all the CO2 that we’re putting up there.”

Five per cent of the world’s farmland is a lot, but if her calculations are right this could be a world-saving technology. Plenty of people have tried to develop a cheap, effective method for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, but all of those technologies are experimental and could take decades to reach the market. Currently, only one example of a successful commercial carbon capture system exists.

This doesn’t mean that suberin-producing crops are a perfect answer to climate change. Chory admits that forcing plants to produce that much suberin would probably hamper their ability to produce food. But even if these modified crops are completely useless aside from their suberin production. This would still make this the cheapest climate change solution ever proposed.

From: PM USA