The threat of climate change demands urgent and innovative solutions, including exploring how the amazing properties of plants can help heal the planet. Salk Institute’s Harnessing Plants Initiative (HPI) is an innovative, scalable and bold approach to help mitigate the effects of climate change by leveraging a plant’s natural ability to capture and store carbon and adapt to diverse climate conditions. As the lead sponsor of the initiative’s Sequestering Carbon Through Climate Adapted Sorghum project, Sempra is donating $2 million over five years to help drive research.
In this Q&A, Kevin Sagara, group president of Sempra and advisory committee member of HPI, speaks with Salk Institute Research Professor Todd Michael to explore the project’s progress and discuss the importance of nature-based solutions to climate change.
Kevin: HPI aims to develop crop plants that have significant opportunity to store carbon in the soil. Tell us about some of the promising crops.
Todd: While plants naturally capture carbon, much of that carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Our approach is to make plants with bigger and deeper roots so that the captured carbon is trapped or sequestered in the soil for much longer periods of time. This should both improve soil quality characteristics while also stably storing more carbon from the atmosphere for longer durations in our soils.
Scalability is key to our strategy for global impact, so we are focused on leveraging the existing agricultural infrastructure by developing crop plants that are either already planted across many acres or can be grown on desolate land with poor soil, known as marginal land. Among our important “early win” crops are sorghum, soybean, and rice. We are grateful for Sempra’s support of our sorghum project.
Kevin: What is the significance of storing carbon in the soil? How is this going to help fight climate change?
Todd: Terrestrial soils are one of the best places to store carbon because of the potential for long term stable storage and the co-benefits associated with improved soil health. Naturally healthy soils store carbon, but carbon stocks can be depleted by many factors like over-tilling and erosion. Our Salk Ideal Plants™ will have bigger and deeper roots along with the biochemical suberin, which is found naturally in things like cork oak, avocado peel, and potato skins.
Suberin and other similar substances act like carbon sponges — tightly packed carbon atoms that we believe will be more resistant to decomposition. By slowing that degradation process, less carbon may be released back into the atmosphere. The more stable carbon we store in soils, the better it is for the climate because it takes a greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and buries it more deeply in our soils where it may last for decades or hundreds of years. Soil health produces other benefits too, such as water management, drought resistance and the reduction of fertilizer inputs — all of which would promote food security and our ability to feed a growing global population.
Kevin: What has the research team learned since 2020 when Sempra became the lead sponsor of the Sequestering Carbon Through Climate Adapted Sorghum project? Are there any project highlights you can share?
Todd: Roots have not been the focus of traditional Sorghum breeding and through the Sempra-funded Sequestering Carbon Through Climate Adapted Sorghum project we have identified plants with bigger, deeper roots in both our controlled lab and field conditions. These new sorghum lines form the basis of our breeding program to develop plants for marginal land acreage here in California that has untapped capacity to store carbon.
Kevin: This type of research often takes decades. How are you and scientists at the Salk Institute trying to accelerate potential solutions?
Todd: The first goal of HPI is to scale our carbon capturing plants to row crop acres and fallow marginal land. However, many of the discoveries and innovations could translate to plants that store carbon in other ecosystems such as wetlands and grasslands. Ultimately, by tapping the power of breeding that has brought us the row crops we eat today, we can expand that knowledge to breed the next generation of carbon capturing plants.
For instance, here in San Diego we are also transferring our discoveries at the Salk Institute into the wetland and coastal environments with plants such as cattail and seagrass. Wetlands and coastal environments have the second largest storage potential of carbon next to the ocean, and restoring, preserving and enhancing these environments would be fundamental to combating climate change with plants.