Amazon’s Jeff Bezos gives Salk Institute $30 million to help fight climate change

The donation recognizes the institute’s quick rise in environmental science


An ambitious effort by La Jolla’s Salk Institute to find ways to get plants to capture and store atmospheric carbon has received a $30 million boost from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as part of his new $10 billion campaign to fight climate change.

The world’s richest man awarded the campaign’s first donations on Monday, giving $791 million to 16 institutions worldwide from a pool of money known as the Bezos Earth Fund.

“Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet,” Bezos said earlier this year, announcing the fund. “I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.”

Most of the new money went to famous environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and World Wildlife Fund, each which received $100 million grants.

But the gift to the Salk came as something of a surprise.

The non-profit institute above Blacks Beach is best known for its pioneering discoveries about the human body, research that has helped lead to such important anti-cancer drugs as Gleevec.

The Salk quietly expanded its work in the plant sciences three years ago, amid a growing belief by its faculty that studying climate change also should be an essential part of the institute’s mission. Researchers placed a special emphasis on learning how to coax important crop plants to sequester more carbon.

The shift caught Bezos’ attention, bringing a fresh round of money to the Torrey Pines Mesa, where neighboring UC San Diego is a world leader in climate research.

“This gift will allow us to study how to store more carbon in six important crop plants — corn, soybeans, canola, rice, wheat and sorghum,” said Wolfgang Busch, co-director of the Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative (HPI).

“We need to make plant roots bigger so they can store more carbon, get the roots to grow deeper in the soil, and get those roots to hold on to the carbon longer. We believe these changes can be made through breeding and genetic engineering.”

They are trying to improve upon one of the most fundamental acts of nature.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air. The C02 enters through pores in the plant’s leaves. It gets combined with water and sunlight during photosynthesis, providing plants with the food. The carbon gets stored in the plant’s roots.

The process — and problem — is studied by far larger institutions, like UCSD. But the Salk has two world-class plant biologists — Joe Ecker and Joanne Chory — and the initiative has been gaining momentum.

Last year, the Salk received a roughly $35 million plant biology-climate change research grant from the Audacious Project, which is part of the TED Foundation, a New York-based group that supports thinkers, visionaries and teachers.

“Salk’s innovative approach to tackling climate change has been hiding in plain sight—in the biology of the plants that surround us—and we’re excited to help put their bold plan into action,” Anna Verghese, executive director of The Audacious Project, said in a statement.

And earlier this month, San Diego-based Sempra Energy gave the Salk a $2 million donation to support carbon sequestration research on sorghum.

The research is meant to be an alternative to taking carbon dioxide from fossil fuel power plants and placing it in a storage site so that the C02 doesn’t enter the atmosphere.

The Salk research expands upon the enormous amount of climate-change work that’s underway in La Jolla.

The institute is located on bluffs overlooking UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which was once run by the late Roger Revelle, a legendary figure in early efforts by scientists to understand and quantify the greenhouse effect.

Scripps also was home to researcher Charles Keeling, who began measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, in the 1950s, establishing an ongoing, long-term record that helped show how fossil fuels contribute to global warming. His graphical data is known as the Keeling Curve.

That work, and other research by Scripps, helped shape the Paris Agreement, an international environmental accord, and influenced the environmental encylical written by Pope Francis.

More recently, Scripps researchers have been tracing how climate changes affects everything from the severity of California wildfires to the intensity of rains that arrive from the sub-tropics during the winter. Scripps also is developing new wave simulator that will examine how pollution caused by humans affects the ocean and, in turn, the atmosphere and climate.

Scripps is led by Margaret Leinen, who praised the Salk on Tuesday for bringing more climate change money to the Torrey Pines Mesa.

“It’s fantastic to see this philanthropic investment in research towards climate change solutions, which is one of the most complex scientific issues that society needs to tackle,” Leinen said

“San Diego has long been a hub of excellent climate change research and this gift further establishes the region as an epicenter for innovative adaptation solutions to the climate crisis.”

— Gary Robbins is a reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune

— Union-Tribune staff writer Rob Nikolewski contributed to this story.