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SAN DIEGO — A cutting-edge program may be an answer to combatting global climate change by identifying the best plants — and perhaps more importantly, their roots — to capture and store carbon dioxide. 

The Salk Institute professor Wolfgang Busch is a lead scientist for the Harnessing Plants Initiative.

“Plants are uniquely able to get the CO2 that’s very diluted in the atmosphere and through the process of photosynthesis,” Busch told FOX 5 Wednesday. “They are already our carbon-capture machines that we so urgently need to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that causes global warming. We tried to leverage genetics to find ways to make them even better.”

“The steeper they go, the better it is to store carbon in the soil,” Busch added.

Using genetics, scientists are studying how roots grow in different environments to identify the genes responsible for the process, to ultimately, enhance that process.  

“We can use these genes, this knowledge to make canola plants … or corn plants, rice plants, so I plant better, and having these root traits that store more carbon in the soil,” Busch said.

“We have already identified more than 10 genes that actually make plants better and storing more carbon for longer in the soil,” Busch added.

They’re already testing them in the real world. Right now, there are two field sites in California. Busch believes in five years they will be able to draw down a million tons of carbon dioxide using enhanced plant varieties worldwide.

“We hope in 2035 we will have arrived at a scale that is more than a gigaton of carbon dioxide,” Busch said.

To put that in perspective, plants on their own get rid of about 20 times more carbon dioxide than humanity produces, but global warming is causing excess carbon dioxide emissions of about 18 gigatons per year. 

“So if we were to capture four gigatons, we would have solved a quarter of this by using enhanced crop plants and we think that is something we can do,” Busch said.