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Carbon-Sucking Weeds Are Here to Save the Planet

Carbon-sucking bionic weeds sound like villainous creatures from a ‘50s “nuclear monster” movie, like Godzilla or The Alligator People. These genetically engineered weeds, however, aren’t out to destroy our world or even destroy our lawns (the role most people view weeds as playing). Carbon-sucking weeds actually are a force of good, helping to save the planet by combating climate change. 

So what makes these weeds so heroic? As part of the photosynthesis process, weeds, like all plants, pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Reducing carbon dioxide levels in the air serves to reduce greenhouse gasses that represent the main cause of climate change. While weeds and plants return some carbon returns into the atmosphere, they also release carbon through their roots into the soil. 

It is with the soil where the “bionic weeds” produce a major impact. Regular weeds make especially good research subjects because they are so pervasive in nature and typically grow quite quickly. Scientists are experimenting with ways to create “bionic weeds” that have stronger and longer roots. Deeper roots will allow weeds (and ultimately plants, in general) to store more carbon into the soil as well as releasing carbon more slowly and over a longer period of time. 

Weeds form a “carbon sink” that not only performs the vital task of taking carbon out of the atmosphere but provide other ecosystemic benefits through their soil storage process. Weeds can slow down water flow by acting like sponges. By holding water in the soil, they help to hydrate the land, which serves to improve vegetation and keep soil healthy even during droughts. Long roots also will help stop erosion, a byproduct of warming temperatures, and consequently makes the soil more productive. 

Research conducted by Columbia University’s Earth Institute has revealed that the Earth’s soil contains over three times more carbon than what is in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living animals and plants. Moreover, there is plenty of room for soil to store more carbon. A scientific report published in nature.com estimated that global croplands have the potential to add nearly 2 gigatons of carbon every year – but only in coordination with better land management.

Reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is crucial in the climate change fight. Rising carbon dioxide levels result in escalating temperatures worldwide, which has consequences like higher sea levels and an increase in extreme and dangerous weather (such as flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts).

For years, efforts to lower carbon dioxide levels have concentrated on cutting down on fossil fuel combustion; however, many climate scientists now believe that carbon levels have risen so high that they can’t lower far enough through emission reductions alone. As a result, more attention has focused on discovering ways to remove carbon out of the air. As Rob Jackson, a professor of earth sciences at Stanford, recently told Bloomberg Businessweek: “Ten years ago, I would have said this (carbon removal approach) is a complete distraction from cutting emissions. Now, after another decade of emissions, I can no longer say that.” 

At the forefront of the carbon-sucking bionic weed research is Dr. Joanne Chory, who runs the Ideal Plant project at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Her team, which is part of The Salk Crops (Carbon Removal on a Planetary Scale) Project, has been working to identify genetic variants that will enhance root mass and thereby raise the amount of carbon kept underground. 

The Salk researchers also have found that roots become stronger with increases in their levels of suberin, a natural polymer found in plants along with being a main component of cork. By retaining more carbon, roots can release carbon more effectively into the soil and more slowly into the atmosphere. 

The goal behind these bionic weed experiments is to be able to augment the genetic makeup of crops like wheat, corn, soy, rice, cotton, and canola to create “ideal plants” that have the ability to absorb more carbon, improve the world’s environment, and save the planet.

“We’re trying to do something that’s a huge, complicated thing even though it sounds so simple,” Dr. Chory told The Guardian

“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.” 

Dr. Chory and her colleagues have achieved promising enough results that they have been negotiating with some of the world’s leading seed distributors regarding their bionic plants. 

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