Science

Engineered duckweed could be a more sustainable source of biofuel

Engineered duckweed could be a more sustainable source of biofuel
A close look at the engineered Lemna japonica duckweed, the oil yield of which is reportedly seven times higher than that of soybeans
A close look at the engineered Lemna japonica duckweed, the oil yield of which is reportedly seven times higher than that of soybeans
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Brookhaven Lab postdoctoral researcher Yuanxue Liang examines some of the duckweed under a microscope
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Brookhaven Lab postdoctoral researcher Yuanxue Liang examines some of the duckweed under a microscope
Brookhaven Lab postdoctoral researcher Yuanxue Liang (left) with co-authors Xiao-Hong Yu and John Shanklin, chair of Brookhaven Lab's Biology Department and leader of the project
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Brookhaven Lab postdoctoral researcher Yuanxue Liang (left) with co-authors Xiao-Hong Yu and John Shanklin, chair of Brookhaven Lab's Biology Department and leader of the project
A close look at the engineered Lemna japonica duckweed, the oil yield of which is reportedly seven times higher than that of soybeans
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A close look at the engineered Lemna japonica duckweed, the oil yield of which is reportedly seven times higher than that of soybeans
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While plants such as corn and soybeans are major sources of biofuel, they're grown on land that could otherwise be used for food crops. With that problem in mind, scientists have genetically engineered oil-producing duckweed that could be grown in wastewater.

The study was conducted by researchers from the US Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and New York's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. They started with an existing type of duckweed known as Lemna japonica, to which they added multiple genes which were already known to drive oil production and storage in other plants.

In what is described as a push/pull/protect effect, one of those genes pushes (increases) the production of fatty acids, one of them pulls (assembles) those fatty acids into triacylglycerol oils, and another protects them from environmental degradation by coating the oil droplets in plant tissue. As a result, the engineered duckweed accumulates oil at almost 10% of its dry weight biomass, which is reportedly a 100-fold increase over the accumulation rate of the plant's wild counterpart.

Its oil yields are also seven times higher than those of soybeans. Unlike soybeans, however, crops of the duckweed wouldn't take up farmland, as they'd be grown in large vessels or ponds. In fact, the scientists suggest that duckweed crops could be grown in the liquid waste runoff from pig and poultry farms, which the plants would help to clean up by drawing excess nutrients out of the water.

Brookhaven Lab postdoctoral researcher Yuanxue Liang examines some of the duckweed under a microscope
Brookhaven Lab postdoctoral researcher Yuanxue Liang examines some of the duckweed under a microscope

One challenge lay in the fact that ordinarily, the gene that pushes fatty acid production also stunts plant growth. In order to get around that problem, the "push" gene was paired with another gene known as a promoter, the latter of which is activated by adding a specific chemical inducer to the water. "Adding this promoter keeps the push gene turned off until we add the inducer, which allows the plants to grow normally before we turn on fatty acid/oil production," said the lead scientist, Brookhaven biochemist John Shanklin.

The researchers are now looking into methods of growing the duckweed and extracting oil from it on a commercial scale.

A paper on the study was recently published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal.

Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory

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5 comments
5 comments
TechGazer
Once it gets loose in the wild, we'll have fat ducks.
FB36
All light/small vehicles are already becoming fully electric & all heavy/big land/sea/air vehicles just need us to start producing biodiesel/biofuel at large scales!
(From all possible industrial/agricultural/forestry waste/biomass & trash & sewage!)
ShowManMN
Do your research before endorsing Duckweed as the new holy grail of misinformation.

Corn and Soybeans are grown on millions of acres and only a small percentage are used for Bio - Fuel.

The vast majority of these food crops are used for animal and human consumption as well 600-700+ industrial uses.

Soybeans greatest value are soy oil and as a high protein food source. Soy Diesel is a minute percentage of this food crop use. It is shipped worldwide as a nutritional source as a food crop.

Corn is a multi use grain. In the processing of the grain for ethanol, bi products are actually enhance as feed stocks and derivatives that are used by industries around the world. It is also shipped worldwide as a nutritional source as a food crop.
DaveWesely
Well well, another way to burn more stuff. ShowManMN actually understands the problem. Corn ethanol is "biofuel", and making ethanol from corn is the most efficient way to make biofuel. Actually more than 30% of the corn is used for ethanol production in the US. But ethanol is just one of the products produced with the fermentation process.
Let's think about what we are doing here.
We are using sunlight to convert CO2 into solid organic carbon compounds. Then we are burning it. Turning it back into CO2. Does it really matter if the carbon comes from fossil fuels or organic feed stocks? CO2 is CO2 and we need to reduce its atmospheric concentration.
We burn it in an internal combustion engine that has a maximum theoretical efficiency of 32%. Realistically it is probably 20-25%. And it takes energy to refine and transport it. Gasoline takes the equivalent energy in .4 gallons of gasoline to extract, refine, and transport one gallon of gasoline at the pump.
Using chemical energy to store and produce kinetic energy is incredibly inefficient compared to producing kinetic (motion) energy from electrical energy.
So instead of figuring out new ways to burn stuff, we should be figuring out new ways to convert CO2 into stable solid carbon compounds for sequestering.
Dan
Ethanol does nothing but drive food prices up and make producers rich. Trying to grow/process fuel at scale is laughable, and, as has been pointed out, does nothing for reducing emissions. Spend research money on something with potential like nuclear, wind, sun, waves. Anything but wasting farming resources.