(ORDO NEWS) — Wolffia, also known as duckweed, is the fastest growing plant known, but the genetics behind the success of this strange little plant have long been a mystery to scientists. Now, thanks to advances in genome sequencing, researchers are exploring what makes this plant unique, and in the process are discovering some of the fundamental principles of plant biology and growth.
A team of researchers led by scientists from the Salk Institute reports new findings about the plant’s genome, explaining how it can grow so quickly. This study could help scientists understand how plants trade off growth and other functions such as rooting and pest control. It has implications for the design of completely new factories that are optimized to perform specific functions, such as increasing carbon stocks to address climate change.
“Much advances in science have been made with very simple organisms such as yeast, bacteria and worms,” says Todd Michael, article author and research professor at the Salk Plant Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory. “The idea here is that we can use a completely minimalistic plant like Wolffia to understand the fundamental principles of what makes a plant a plant.”
The wolffia, which grows in fresh water on every continent except Antarctica, looks like tiny floating green seeds, each plant the size of a pinhead. It has no roots, but only one fused stem-leaf structure, called the frond. Wolffia reproduces like yeast when the daughter plant falls off the mother’s buds. Some experts believe that when doubling in just 24 hours, wolffia could be an important source of protein to feed the growing population of the Earth (it is already eaten in parts of Southeast Asia, where it is known as khai-nam, which translates as “water eggs.”)
Scientists have grown wolffia by accurately marking the cycles of light and dark, analyzing which genes were active at different times of the day. Most plants are regulated by light and dark cycles, with most of the growth taking place in the morning. It was found that wolffia has half the genes that are regulated by light-dark cycles compared to other plants.
“We think that’s why it is growing so fast. He has no rules to limit his height, ”explained Todd Michael.
The researchers also found that genes associated with other important elements of plant behavior, such as defense mechanisms and root growth, are missing.
“This plant has lost most of the genes it doesn’t need,” adds Michael. “The company seems to be focusing only on uncontrolled rapid growth.”
The scientists explain that data on the wolffia genome can provide important information about the interaction between how plants develop their body plan and how they grow. This study expands knowledge in basic plant biology and also suggests potential for crop and agricultural improvement. And by making plants more capable of storing atmospheric carbon in their roots, scientists can optimize them to help deal with the threat of climate change.
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