Joanne Chory is using plants to save the planet

The world was running out of time, and so was Joanne Chory.

The 63-year-old biologist was nearing the end of a distinguished career researching how plants grow. Now she’d won the most prestigious honor in her field, the Breakthrough Foundation’s life sciences prize, which came with a $3 million check and an opportunity to address inventors and well-heeled donors at a glitzy Silicon Valley awards ceremony in December 2017.

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The audience expected Chory to reflect on her achievements. Instead, she seized the chance to issue a warning.

Human-caused climate change was putting humanity’s future in peril, she said in recorded remarks. Survival would depend on Earth’s original carbon-capture machines, the most effective tools for getting rid of greenhouse gases.

People needed to find new ways to grow plants — and soon.

The scientist’s urgency came not only from what was happening around her — record heat waves, catastrophic wildfires and deadly floods linked to climate change — but from the fight within her. Chory had been living with Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade, and the illness was getting worse. The cells in her brain were degenerating, her muscles were in revolt.

With the world teetering toward disaster, she decided, there was only one thing she wanted to do with the days she had left.

 Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., on March 24.
Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., on March 24.

In the Breakthrough Prize video, Chory laid out a vision for a new kind of agriculture. She wanted to create “ideal plants” — crops like wheat or rice that are bred to store huge amounts of carbon in their roots. If enough farmers replanted their fields with these engineered species, she said, they could pull as much as 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans out of the atmosphere each year.

In time, that speech would get the attention of foundations and pull in millions of dollars in funding, enabling Chory and her colleagues at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., to expand their lab and enhance their experiments. They would identify the genes that make plant roots deep and thick and rich in sugar. Their greenhouses and growth chambers would be crowded with seedlings, and their project would be heralded as a revolutionary solution to the biggest problem on the planet.

But on the day she gave her speech, Chory had only her faith that the idea was possible — and her conviction that it had to be done.

“We’re going to make plants better,” she said, her lips twitching into a smile. “And we’re going to end up saving the world.”

Lotus japonicus in growth medium in the Climate Simulation Lab built for Chory's research.
Lotus japonicus in growth medium in the Climate Simulation Lab built for Chory's research.
Research assistant Jessica Wu checks for reactions at the lab.
Research assistant Jessica Wu checks for reactions at the lab.
Soybean seedlings in growth medium at Chory's greenhouse on March 24.
Soybean seedlings in growth medium at Chory's greenhouse on March 24.

Growing in the dark

To hear Chory describe it, photosynthesis is an everyday miracle. Powered by nothing more than sunshine, it converts water and carbon dioxide into flower petals and tree trunks, wide green leaves and spindly stems. Almost all life on Earth owes its existence to this process.

Photosynthesis also shields humanity from the worst consequences of our own actions. Each year, plants take up about a quarter of the planet-warming gases people emit. Put another way: without plants, climate change — which has already disrupted ecosystems and destroyed lives — would be even worse.

“Plants are pretty cool. They’re like a silent partner in all of this,” Chory said. “But nobody ever pays attention to them.”

Chory can empathize; she too overlooked plants for many years. Growing up near Boston in the 1950s and ’60s, one of six children in a boisterous Lebanese American family, she spent most of her time tussling with her siblings or disappearing into novels. She was ambivalent about science until a college genetics course caught her interest, and throughout her graduate studies she was focused on bacteria, not plants.

After receiving her PhD, Chory decided to join a lab that experimented with a tiny weed called Arabidopsis mainly because it seemed less competitive than researching microbes or fruit flies. With so few other scientists studying it, “I thought I could really make a difference there,” she recalled.

For one of her first experiments, Chory wanted to identify a genetic mutation that caused some Arabidopsis plants to be purple instead of green. She stuck some of the seedlings in a dark chamber, just to see what would happen.

Logic dictated that the plants would wither soon after sprouting, deprived of the light that’s needed to power photosynthesis. But several of the seedlings defied expectations, sending out fat shoots and broad, white leaves.

“Most people would say, ‘that’s strange, I didn’t get the mutant I want,’ and move on,” said Fred Ausubel, a Harvard Medical School geneticist who ran the lab where Chory was working at the time. “But Joanne realized immediately she’d found something much more interesting and important” — a mutation that caused plants to thwart their own biology and grow in the dark.

Though the initial discovery was a fluke, it launched Chory into decades of intensive study. Her first major academic paper revealed the gene that switches on a plant’s “growth mode” in response to sunshine. Next she identified hormones that dictate plants’ shapes and sizes. Her discoveries paved the way for research that would improve farmers’ yields and make crops more resilient.

The scientific establishment initially was resistant to the findings — and to the dynamic woman who delivered them. Older researchers would question her analyses. Male classmates and colleagues would try to intimidate her with pranks.

But Chory had inherited determination from her mother, who had dropped out of high school to go to work during the Great Depression, and resilience from her father, who labored long hours as an accountant so the family could make ends meet. She got her thick skin from her siblings, who she lovingly claims “were meaner than anyone I ever met in the lab.”

Postdoctoral fellow Nicole Gibbs collects samples at the lab.
Postdoctoral fellow Nicole Gibbs collects samples at the lab.

Eventually, Chory became a plant research superstar. She established her own lab at the Salk Institute, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Her published research was taught in college biology classes, where it awed aspiring scientists like Jennifer Nemhauser, who dreamed of studying in Chory’s lab.

“It was so obvious that she was an incredibly original thinker and someone who is very brave — to do things that other people would consider too hard, too weird, too ambitious,” Nemhauser said.

When she came to work with Chory as a postdoctoral fellow in 2000, Nemhauser was ready to be impressed by the older woman’s ferocious intellect. She didn’t expect Chory to be compassionate, witty and wise, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a willingness to hear out any idea.

“It was the most heady scientific environment I’ve ever been in,” said Nemhauser, now a professor at the University of Washington. Chory’s lab meetings often turned into freewheeling discussions and vigorous debates. The conversations would end with everyone grinning and drenched in sweat.

In 2004, Chory summoned her team to a more sober gathering. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a degenerative brain disorder that can cause tremors, mobility problems and severe pain, among other symptoms. Though the disease can be treated, there is no cure.

Nemhauser recalled the stricken scene that filled the lab after the announcement. Chory was only 49. She had two young children. It didn’t seem fair that such an accomplished and beloved person would have to deal with so much pain.

Almost everyone in the room was in tears, Nemhauser said. But Chory’s eyes stayed dry.

A tobacco plant emerges from soil in the lab.
A tobacco plant emerges from soil in the lab.
Chory, a plant geneticist experimenting with the root structure of major crops, holds a carnivorous plant.
Chory, a plant geneticist experimenting with the root structure of major crops, holds a carnivorous plant.
Soybean plants grow at Chory's greenhouse.
Soybean plants grow at Chory's greenhouse.

An idea takes root

For almost a decade, Chory was able to manage her Parkinson’s with medication. But the disease is progressive; by 2014, her symptoms had become severe. Some days, she woke up feeling like her body had aged 40 years overnight. The simple act of walking, she said, was as mentally exhausting as driving in the left lane on English roads.

Chory kept on top of the scientific literature and represented patients at neuroscience conferences. She tried to stay ahead of her disease.

“But the wild swings, and not knowing what you’re waking up to, it can make you kind of anxious,” she said. “I’d rather not think about it.”

So she worked. Between 2005 and 2015, Chory contributed to 117 publications in academic journals: They included titles such as: “Organelle signaling: how stressed chloroplasts communicate with the nucleus” and “A toggle switch in plant nitrate uptake.”

But the rapid escalation of the climate crisis was starting to match the urgency Chory felt about her own health. In 2011, a drought in East Africa caused tens of thousands of people to die of hunger. The following year, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast. By the end of 2013, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere crossed the milestone level of 400 parts per million. And 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record — until 2016 surpassed it.

There had to be something they could do, Chory would say during those freewheeling conversations in the lab. If human carbon dioxide emissions were the problem, couldn’t plants be part of the solution? After all, plants had been perfecting the art of pulling carbon from the atmosphere for more than 3 billion years.

Around that time, Elizabeth Blackburn, then the Salk Institute president, issued a challenge to the faculty: Do something bigger than your lab. Team up on a project that could change the world.

Pot sensors are used with corn to monitor the growth of the root system.
Pot sensors are used with corn to monitor the growth of the root system.

The institute’s plant biology researchers put their heads together, and the Harnessing Plants Initiative was born.

Some of Chory’s colleagues were surprised by her sudden shift in focus. But not Jack Bolado, who has been her lab manager for more than a decade.

“She is using everything that she’s accomplished to do something focused on the biggest problem out there,” he said. “One last hurrah of her career.”

The initiative’s first challenge was finding a way to make plants better at storing carbon long term. Though the world’s greenery takes trillions of pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year, much of it goes right back to the air when the plants die and their tissue is broken down by microbes.

Wolfgang Busch, a root expert, suggested that plants could be genetically manipulated to put more carbon in their underground parts. This way, their decomposing tissue would be incorporated into the earth, rather than being released into the air. Carbon and other nutrients would be restored to soil depleted by decades of intensive agriculture. And, as an added bonus, deep-rooted plants would be more resistant to flooding and drought.

Next, Joe Noel called the team’s attention to a molecule called suberin, which forms the main component of cork. Each molecule contains dozens of carbon atoms, and the substance is difficult for microbes to break down. If the scientists could get plants to store carbon in this form, it would stay trapped for at least a century — buying time for civilization to shift away from fossil fuels.

The team took multiple approaches to identify the genes they would need to target. In some cases they scrutinized the scientific literature and compared hundreds of wild strains of Arabidopsis in search of desired properties. Then they used gene editing tools to temper or enhance those traits. Another tactic involved soaking Arabidopsis seeds in a chemical that alters DNA, then monitoring how they grew.

In both cases, the researchers looked for plants with the most intriguing qualities. If a sprout was deficient in suberin, that meant a gene related to its production had been knocked out. If another boasted extra thick roots, it also had a mutation worth looking into.

Plants with the right genes could then be crossbred with crops to create the “ideal plant." It would have big, deep roots. It would contain lots and lots of suberin. And it would be able to feed the world.

It wouldn’t be hard to find space to grow this plant: half the world’s habitable land is already devoted to agriculture, which is currently responsible for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem was money. Plant biology has never been a well-funded field of research. But for an experimental program to cultivate a climate-saving plant, there truly was nothing: No National Science Foundation grants. No Department of Agriculture awards. The team applied to all the traditional funding sources and was turned away by every one.

Until Chory gave her speech.

That was a “key moment,” said Busch, who co-leads the Harnessing Plants Initiative. “She used that stage and highlighted not only the work of plant scientists but … this idea of fighting climate change with plant genetics.

“In a way, that set off this sequence of fortunate events that made us successful.”

Shortly afterward, someone suggested that Chory apply to the TED Audacious Project, a collaboration of foundations and philanthropists seeking to fund solutions to the world’s major problems. The program gave Salk $35 million — several orders of magnitude more than the average NSF grant. Then came $30 million from the Bezos Earth Fund (Jeff Bezos of Amazon owns The Washington Post). And millions more from companies such as Sempra Energy and Hess.

“Now we just have to do it,” Chory said. “Doing it is what keeps me up at night.”

Dried canola plants are ready for seed collection at the lab in La Jolla.
Dried canola plants are ready for seed collection at the lab in La Jolla.
Chory inspects tomato plants in a greenhouse at the Salk Institute.
Chory inspects tomato plants in a greenhouse at the Salk Institute.
Dried arabidopsis thaliana at Chory's greenhouse.
Dried arabidopsis thaliana at Chory's greenhouse.

The ideal plant

By 2030, scientists say, humanity must cut greenhouse gas emissions almost in half to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.

“That’s a pretty aggressive timetable,” Chory said. “The question of if it can be done by then is looming large over Wolfgang and me.”

At the start of the decade, the Harnessing Plants Initiative faculty members charted a course they thought would get them where they needed to go. They would spend five years on basic discovery research: Identifying relevant genes in Arabidopsis and crop plant seedlings; using genetic editing techniques or traditional breeding to cultivate those genes in the appropriate crops; conducting small field experiments to see how the plants grow outdoors.

After that they’d have five years for conducting large field trials, scaling up production, and persuading business and politicians to get on board. By 2030, they hoped, ideal crops would occupy half a million acres. By 2035, the plants would sequester 4 to 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year — between 10 and 20 percent of humanity’s current annual emissions.

But then the coronavirus pandemic consumed the country and shuttered their lab. Two generations of experimental plants were lost. Still more troubling, Chory says, is the loss of momentum.

“I have to keep cheering people up,” she said.

When Chory finds herself struggling to stay positive, she imagines the future that awaits if people don’t address climate change: Catastrophic fires and devastating floods. Widespread food and water shortages. Destruction of habitats and extinctions of species at a rate not seen in millions of years. “Do you really want your kids to see that?” she asks herself.

And then she envisions the future she still believes is possible: People living in smaller, safer, more sustainable houses. Windmills churning and solar panels gleaming from mountainsides and fields. She pictures acre after acre of farmland planted with engineered crops, their roots reaching deep into rich, healthy soil. She thinks of carbon dioxide concentrations ticking downward — measurable, meaningful change.

Chory’s uncertain health means her own future is a mystery. But she can envision her children, in their 30s, on a planet that is thriving.

“I would like for my kids to be thinking,” she said, “that I did something important for their world.”

About this story

Editing by Lori Montgomery. Copy editing by Paula Kelso. Animation by Kolin Pope. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design and development by Andrew Braford.

Sarah Kaplan is a climate reporter covering humanity's response to a warming world. She previously reported on Earth science and the universe.