Can a weed save the world?


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Can a weed save the world?

Photo by Alexandre Boucey on Unsplash

Our first two tiny expeditions of this season kept us firmly on dry land exploring trees and peanuts.  Now let’s take a splash into the aquatic world of duckweed, a tiny plant with enormous possibilities.

Duckweeds are some of the smallest and fastest growing flowering plants known on earth. They live on the surface of slow-moving water sources, like ponds and marshes. Duckweed has a very rapid growth cycle, reproducing asexually by repeatedly cloning itself. A single duckweed plant, some as small as the head of a pin, can quickly take over and cover the entire surface of a body of water within a few days.

Photo by Ilse Orsel on Unsplash

Although they have long been touted as a nuisance by golf course owners and others trying to maintain a pristine pond or lake, there are actually many amazing applications of duckweeds that can give back and help our planet. Scientists are trying to restore duckweed’s reputation by studying some of the amazing things that it can do—from feeding humans and animals to ridding water sources of chemicals and heavy metals.

Listen to Tiny Expeditions Season 2, Episode 3: “Can a weed save the world?” to learn about the many ways that the tiny aquatic plant can feed, fuel, and clean our planet.

Behind the Scenes

Alex Harkess

Alex Harkess, PhD (pictured left) studies the weird plants on our planet. And one of his favorite weird plants (although he would never be able to pick just one) is duckweed.

Duckweeds are fascinating plants that are viewed as both nuisances and environmental saviors depending on who you ask. Yes, they can take over entire ponds in a matter of a few days but they also rid water sources of harmful chemicals, feed humans and animals, help eradicate mosquitoes in areas with high levels of mosquito born illness, and even play a role in drug and vaccine development.

After learning all about the amazing tiny plant, we wanted to see some duckweed for ourselves. We walked to the Harkess lab on the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology campus to checkout their duckweed collection. Laramie Smith (pictured right) is a graduate student at Auburn University in the Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Department. She is doing her graduate research in Dr. Harkess’ lab at HudsonAlpha.

Laramie walked us to the back of the lab and sitting on the sunny windowsill was a flask full of bright green duckweed (pictured bottom left and right). The duckweed looked just like little green orbs floating on the top of the water. It is truly amazing that this small plant can do so much to benefit us and our planet.

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