Duckweed genes left exposed for future biofuel research

By Chris Hanson | February 27, 2014

Greater Duckweed, which holds potential for biofuel production, had its genes analyzed by Rutgers University researchers.

Duckweed, also known as Spirodela polyrhiza, is characterized by a small, bean-shaped leaf with thin roots growing underneath and is usually found in lakes, ponds and marshes. Although the plant is fairly small, it is ranked as one of the fastest growing plants, and can double its population in a few days under ideal growing conditions.

Unlike many other biofuel feedstocks, the duckweed contained small amounts of lignin and cellulose, which can be a challenge to remove during biofuel production. Joachim Messing, director of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers, estimated the plant will be a viable biofuel sources within five years.

The next step for biofuel research would entail further genetic research to determine and optimize traits most beneficial for biofuel production. For example, genetically engineering the duckweed to produce more starch, reduce cellulose levels or yield higher lipid content. “Once the genome has been sequenced then you can genetically engineer new varieties of duckweed depending on what application you want to use it for,” Messing said.

Messing cited some companies have already expressed interest in the research. “I think if you really have something economically superior people will catch on,” he said.

The research was published in Nature Communications on February 19.