Scientists unravel mystery behind Wolffia, world’s fastest growing plant

Environment Contributor
Today's Focus
Mosquito fern, Water fern,water wolffia, green weed in the paddy rice field. © Weerapong Worranam |

The living world is broadly categorized into two kingdoms – plant and animal. The evolution of the plants dates back to earlier days than the animals though. Plants are the only living entities that supply oxygen for all the animals. A tiny member of the plant kingdom Wolffia (popularly known as Duckweed, also known as Khudipana in rural Bangladesh) is now the focus of the scientific community. The most amazing fact about Wolffia is that it has the ability to grow at a tremendous speed.

Until now the reproduction procedure of Wolffia was a mystery. But with the advancement in the area of genome architecture, scientists are now able to decode the genome sequence of Wolffia. Scientists from the Salk Institute for the first time shed light on the unique characteristics of this tiny plant. Their discovery made it to the reputed Genome Research journal in early February.

What are the characteristics of Wolffia and why research on this is important?

Wolffia is a very common plant usually found in clear water bodies in all the continents except Antarctica. Surprisingly, this plant has no root but a green body or stem. Consisting of only leaves of the size of a pinhead. This plant has the ability to reproduce another plant in just 1 day.

Scientists presume that with this growing population, research on this plant has the potential to provide the solution of food for them. In addition, this plant is already consumed as food in South-East Asian countries. Where it is popularly known as Khai-nam. Also, the data that scientists gather by decoding the genome sequence of this plant could enable them to reproduce such a plant that can grow faster and absorb carbon-di-oxide from the atmosphere, acting as an effective air filter.

Why did scientists choose this plant as the subject?

Professor Todd Michael, lead scientist of the project from Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at Salk Institute, says, “In tremendous advancement of science, there has always been a contribution from simple and minimalistic living entities. Our focus of this research on one of the simplest plant Wolffia was to understand what makes a plant a plant!”

Scientists have conducted research on Wolffia during light and dark cycles. To unravel the mechanism of the genes that get activated at different times of the day. They have found that Wolffia has half the genes compared to other plants that get activated with light/dark cycles. Even Wolffia does not possess the most important genes like the ones that are responsible for protection or root growth. In the words of Michael, “The plant has shed most of the genes that it doesn’t need. It seems to have evolved to focus only on uncontrolled, fast growth.”

With this important discovery now scientists could get full insight into the basic characteristics of the plants. This information could be used to bring about enormous development in the area of food crops or agriculture. Professor Joseph Ecker from the ‘Genomic Analysis Laboratory’ at Salk Institute adds, “Wolffia can serve as the model laboratory for studying the basic characteristics of plant behavior. We can even know about the genes responsible for specific biological activities.”