As weather extremes multiply, the debate on climate change has become urgent, as politicians talk of a zero increase in net carbon output, investors adopt climate-friendly strategies, students demonstrate and scientists seek ways to haul greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
The newest focus for scientists is on photosynthesis, where plants use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into glucose and oxygen. California’s Salk Institute is the latest to attract a string of donations from wealthy families for its Harnessing Plants Initiative through The Audacious Project, a non-profit initiative affiliated to TED, the tech-driven think tank.
One of them has come from Clara Wu and Joe Tsai, co-founder of Chinese giant internet platform, Alibaba. Another is from Chris Larsen, a pioneer in peer-to-peer lending, and crypto-currencies. Other donors include philanthropist Lyda Hill; venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson; Hansjoerg Wyss for the Wyss Medical Foundation, and Joe Gebbia, chief product officer at Airbnb. More are lined up.
The Harnessing Plants project, led by Joanne Chory, seeks to turbocharge the ability of plants to capture, and trap, large quantities of carbon dioxide in enlarged root systems.
Chory says: “If we can optimise plants natural ability to capture and store carbon we can develop plants that not only has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but can also help enrich soils and increase crop yields.”
A substance called suberin, used in cork, is key to the storage of carbon in roots. Following initial trials, Crory plans to apply the genetic strain to different crops. She also aims to re-engineer plants that thrive in marshland.
Elsewhere in the horticultural world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is backing research from the University of Illinois known as Realising Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency, alongside US and UK governments. The RIPE research uses genetics to re-reroute the photosynthesis process, reduce the stress on plants and stop them absorbing oxygen at night. As a result, plants grow faster and taller, and produce 40% more biomass.
The research has been trialled on tobacco plants, and will be applied to other crops. As well as achieving scale, it makes photosynthesis more effective at higher temperatures, which is good news, given the current warming trend.
Researchers, cheered on by Bill Gates, are also working on ways to develop artificial photosynthesis using glucose as an energy storage device. Thomas Fuance, a professor at the Australian National University, believes artificial photosynthesis could one day be a game changer, eclipsing solar panels as a source of energy. Gold nanoparticles can be a potential catalyst, according to scientific research, just as plants use chlorophyll.
Artificial photosynthesis, like advanced plant genetics, has yet to become commercially viable. Forest preservation, and planting, is a more pragmatic way to help save the planet.
But research often leads to commercial opportunities in due course.
Beyond Meat, backed by a string of wealthy investors in the US, has just defied scepticism over its attempts to turn plants into artificial meat, to become one of this year’s top-performing IPOs.