Biofuels from a Floating Water Weed

Duckweed sequencing reveals insights into genes for lignin, cellulose, and starch production.

Image used with permission under a Creative Commons License from Wang, W., and J. Messing. “Analysis of ADP-glucose pyrophosphorylase expression during turion formation induced by abscisic acid in Spirodela polyrhiza (greater duckweed).” BMC Plant Biol. 12, 5. (2012).
Duckweed is a relatively simple plant with fronds (A and B, right) that float on the surface of water and roots that extend into the water. In its dormant phase, the plant is characterized by buds called turions that sink to the bottom of water (A and B, left).

The Science

Sequencing the genome of Greater Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) has provided clues about how this tiny plant might be used as a raw material for biofuels.

The Impact

Duckweed shows great promise as a biofuel feedstock, and private companies already are exploring its use in fuel production. Because of its many unique traits and life cycle, insights from the S. polyrhiza genome should reveal much about the genes involved in cellulose and lignin production. S. polyrhiza’s high starch content is also a desirable trait for biofuel feedstocks.


Duckweed, one of the world’s smallest and fastest-growing flowering plants, can be a hard-to-control weed in ponds and small lakes. Although duckweed’s very small genome is missing many genes for plant maturation and production of cellulose and lignin, it has more genes for starch production than comparable plants. Researchers at Rutgers University, the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (JGI), and several other facilities sequenced the complete genome of S. polyrhiza and analyzed it in comparison with several other plants, including rice and tomato. This sequencing project was conducted as part of the JGI Community Science Program.Duckweed has several properties that make it an ideal candidate as a raw source for biofuel production. Joachim Messing of Rutgers University, senior author of the team’s research paper, predicts that duckweed will be a viable biofuel source within 5 years. Determining which genes produce desirable traits will allow researchers to create new varieties of duckweed with enhanced biofuel traits.


Joachim Messing
Rutgers University


This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science (contract no. DE-AC02-05CH11231) and the Selman Waksman Chair in Molecular Genetics.


Wang, W., et al. “The Spirodela polyrhiza genome reveals insights into its neotenous reduction fast growth and aquatic lifestyle.” Nat. Commun. 5, 3311 (2014). [DOI: 10.1038/ncomms431].

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