Plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, and store it in their roots, stems, and leaves. But when plants decompose, much of that carbon returns to the atmosphere.

Joanne Chory is a plant biologist and geneticist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Her team is working to develop new plant varieties that can lock more carbon in the soil long-term.

She says these new plants need to have more and deeper roots in order to bury the carbon down deep where there are fewer microorganisms that can decompose the plant and make all the carbon dioxide go back up in the atmosphere.

Chory says the ideal plants will also have high concentrations of a molecule called suberin, which is found in cork. It holds a lot of carbon and breaks down very slowly.

The project is in its early stages.

“What we’re doing right now is trying to understand what those traits really mean in terms of genes,” Chory says.

With that information, researchers can selectively breed for those traits or engineer them into widely-grown plants, such as corn and wheat.

“We want to put these all into croplands because … you really need a lot of land if you’re going to do this,” she says.

Chory hopes that in 10 years, these climate-friendly crops will be growing in farm fields around the globe.

Also see: More on carbon and soil

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.