What if plants had superpowers?
Back to school
What was it they used to teach us in Biology at school? One of the very first things we learned when we opened up the chapter on plants and animals? I’m sure there was something in there about plants breathing in all that dirty smelly planet warming carbon dioxide that us animals like to expel while we’re frantically running around the place looking for our dinner? Or was I just dreaming? Maybe I was too busy turning all those funky looking lab taps upside down and spraying water all over the classroom to concentrate and I’ve mixed up my facts? Nope, I just googled it, and it’s true! Plants actually breathe in carbon dioxide, the gas most responsible for global warming according to National Geographic and a whole forest load of other respected scientific institutions around the world. There’s always time for puns right? Even if the world is burning? I mean, lighten up dude. Wait, was that another pun? Okay, let’s get back to it!
Nature to save nature?
In wake of this groundbreaking discovery that plants actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere, some absolutely batshit crazy people have been suggesting that the restoration of natural forests and coasts can simultaneously tackle climate change and the annihilation of wildlife, a concept that’s already being put into practice in the Sahel region in Africa as I discussed in my last post! Who would have thought it? Using nature to save nature; maybe humans should just stay out of it from now on? All jokes aside though, this is a very simple, incomprehensibly obvious, and heartwarming idea. Amongst all of the complex (yet still very welcome and inspiring) talk of building machines that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or the more outrageous (and considerably more questionable) notions of creating chemical clouds to block out the sun, the idea that simply by planting more trees and plants we can naturally bring down the planet’s CO2 levels and temperature while simultaneously saving all the beautiful animals is a pretty wonderful and accessible one, and you know what? It doesn’t stop there.
The restoration of natural forests and coasts can simultaneously tackle climate change and the annihilation of wildlife.
So we already know that plants are magical wonderful beautiful life-giving creatures that turn sunlight into energy and produce the very oxygen we breathe, but what if they had superpowers? Enter Dr. Joanne Chory. Dr. Chory is an esteemed scientist, professor and director of the plant molecular and cellular laboratory at The Salk Institute (an independent, non-profit scientific research institute based in San Diego, California) and an all-round badass and figure of hope for us all. Perhaps the world’s leading botanist, and someone who has been advocating for climate action for some time, Dr.Chory is working on something that really has the potential to save our planet. She has figured out how to design plants capable of storing even more carbon in their roots. ‘Ideal Plants’ she likes to call them; I prefer ‘Super Plants’, but that’s probably just my obsession with all things ‘superhero’ shining through. Spider Plants? Maybe not, but whatever you choose to call them, they may very well keep us swinging around our ‘friendly neighbourhoods’ for some time to come! Seriously though, Spiderman often says that, ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’, and us humans have a whole lot of power don’t we? Jonas Salk, founder of The Salk Institute reckoned ‘our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors’, a very noble and sensible way of looking at it. Inspiring quotes, but how do we put them into practice? Maybe these Ideal Plants can help.
Plants have evolved over time to be the perfect vehicle for carbon capture and storage. Through photosynthesis they remove CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen and biomass. What Dr.Chory and the fine people over at The Salk Institute are doing is splicing the genes of regular crops and everyday plants like beans, corn, and cotton, with a new compound called Suberin that makes them absorb even more carbon. The roots then transfer the carbon to the soil and keep it there. ‘This approach essentially supercharges what nature already does’.
So following on from the idea of planting loads of plants and trees to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and combat climate change, imagine if it was these supercharged Ideal plants we were planting. And imagine if we planted like, millions of them? I mean it’s like a buy one get one free kind of situation here, only it’s plant one get one free. Plant one plant, get another plants worth of CO2 demolishing capability free; it’s plants on bloody steroids! And there are other benefits too. In addition to mitigating climate change, the enhanced root systems should help protect plants from the stresses caused by climate changes, and the additional carbon in the soil should make the soil richer, promoting better crop yields and more food for a growing global population. So that’s more food to go around, and all that dirty carbon in the ground. Sounds pretty flaming majestic to me, but can these plant shaped Avengers really save us?
Not only do ‘Ideal plants’ remove more CO2 from the environment compared to regular plants, they also store it in the soul for much longer.
Can they save us?
Right now, the institute is negotiating with seed companies and prepping tests on nine agricultural crops to introduce Ideal Plants on farms around the world, and they have received over $37 Million in grants and funding so far. A decent start; but time is short, and the world is hot! Each year, we produce 18 more Gigatons of CO2 than the earth can currently handle and fossil fuel use is predicted to rise in the short-term future, so my god we really do need to get planting!
But like with any real, beneficial, significant progress in this frustratingly preposterous world we call home, there are plenty of unknowns involved, and plenty of resistance. Receiving global buy-in from farmers is a big one, as money truly does make the world go around. The time it takes for the plants to reach maturity is another, as the clock really is ticking. And the general aversion people tend to have for anything ‘GMO’ is also a potential roadblock, as ironically, the very same people who don’t seem to mind pulverising the natural world with artificially produced chemicals and plastics via their undeterred tendency for purchasing heavily processed goods, tend to get a little bit antsy when our manipulation of what we consider ‘natural’ moves from the outer realms of pesticides and plastic lives to the inner world of DNA and gene editing. It’s not a very logical world we live in I know, but if promising gene related technologies like the Ideal Plants are to have any chance of saving our asses, people need to be convinced of their legitimacy and potential. And my great big giggling goodness, they’ve got potential!
Right now, the institute is negotiating with seed companies and prepping tests on nine agricultural crops to introduce Ideal Plants on farms around the world, and they have received over $37 Million in grants and funding so far.
The Salk Institute believe their solution can achieve as much as 46% annual reduction in excess CO2 emissions produced by humans. This, of course, is assuming that things go to plan, and that people take to the idea, something that’s far from guaranteed. But imagine if people do take to the idea, and imagine if the plants actually work. That’s nearly a 50% reduction in excess CO2 emissions! 50%! That’s basically half the problem sorted just by planting a few plants. And that doesn’t even take into account the positive effects the plants would have on biodiversity and crop yields. So can they save us? Nobody can be sure, but they can certainly give us a fighting chance!
Spread the word!
The Ideal Plants can make a significant difference, but they’ll be much more effective if people know about them and support them.
There are loads and loads of wonderful people and ideas and technologies out there that are trying to get us out of this cruel hot mess we’ve found ourselves in and these plant based superheroes are one of them. In conjunction with the other solutions, solutions I intend to explore in detail on this blog, the Ideal Plants can make a significant difference, but they’ll be much more effective if people know about them and support them. So spread the word! Shout it out loud! ‘Ideal Plant’ and proud! Get these things in the ground! A brand new life saving planet raving queen of all things agriculture has been crowned! Potential benefits profound! From the hills to the underground! Or, you know, just share this post or something? Peace.
A living legend
I thought that was a lovely way to end the post, as plants are pretty damn peaceful you know? But since I’m in the business of hope, I felt I had to write a few words about the wonderful inspiration that is Dr. Joanne Chory. Not only is she a world renowned scientist dedicating her life to finding ways to save the planet, she’s also a woman in her 60’s who is currently battling Parkinson’s disease; but it doesn’t seem to faze her at all. “Look at me, I’m 64 years old. I’m not going to be around to see this project go to fruition, I’m not going to be working at Salk, probably. That urgency is there. The climate urgency is there. Every week there’s a new climate disaster. How can we get there? We can’t really get there any faster. I don’t know if we can do it, but I want to be part of the solution. I don’t just want to sit around and complain.” What a truly tremendous outlook. Even while staring her own mortality in the face she is striving to live in the present and determined to build for the future; a future she is unlikely to be a part of. We could all learn a whole lot from her, and I’m not just talking about science! So god bless her, god bless the future, and god bless the super plants! There is hope for us yet.
About the Author
Adam Millett is a freelance writer, blogger, and published poet with an affinity for dressing up as Spiderman and writing about saving the planet. He likes to climb trees and stare at the stars in his spare time and likes to help sustainable businesses tell the world their stories while he’s working. Visit his website at wordchameleon.com if you want to tell the world yours.