Duckweeds are the world’s smallest flowering plants. These tiny plants float on still and slow-moving water the world over. With the warm spring weather you can find duckweed growing along the edges of most local ponds and the still pools of streams. Their common name — duckweed (or duckmeal) — reflects their importance as a high-protein food for many aquatic waterfowl.

Duckweed is a key player in a number of cutting edge bio-technological applications. It can be used as bio-sensors to detect heavy metals and organic contaminants in water. Duckweed can be used in bioremediation as living machines to clean sewage and heavy metals from contaminated water. Duckweed can be used as a biofactory; genetically modified duckweed can produce pharmaceutical proteins and other biopharmaceuticals. Duckweed can be easily grown in aquaponic systems to provide food for commercially-produced fish, pigs, chickens and, obviously, ducks. There is even a duckweed genome project!

In a recent paper published in the journal “Nature Communications,” researchers from Rutgers University, the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and several other facilities detail the complete genome of one species of duckweed, Greater Duckweed (Spirodela polyriza). This work has major implications for duckweed’s potential as a biofuel source.

Duckweed has a number of advantages over the land plants (like corn) currently used as feedstock (raw material) for biofuel production. Duckweed is one of the fastest growing flowering plants; given enough nutrients and light, it can easily double its population in a couple days. In addition, since it floats on the top of water and don’t need to support leaves and a stem, they don’t contain large amounts of the woody material (lignin and cellulose) that needs to be removed from land plants as part of biofuel production.


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