Overselling genomics Award #5: Duckweed will save the world

OK. I really wanted to leave this one alone because it involves the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) where I work part of the time. And I really like JGI and what it is doing in many aspects of genomics. But this one is just so over the top that I could not leave it alone. There is a press release from Rutgers that came out regarding a new project to sequence the duckweed genome (see News: Duckweed genome sequencing has global implications) and the Eureka release here

And this one is just so over the top in terms of overselling I do not know where to begin. First, they had me at the title

Duckweed genome sequencing has global implications

But the subtitle is even better

Pond scum can undo pollution, fight global warming and alleviate world hunger

There is really little else to say. I commend the JGI and DOE for supporting this work as it sounds reasonable and work on this organism may have many uses. But, umm, this was the most obvious “Overselling genomics award” I have ever given.

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

7 thoughts on “Overselling genomics Award #5: Duckweed will save the world”

  1. Actually, Jon, the duckweed sequence has interplanetary implications. I am quite serious, because duckweed is a strong contender for a major crop in transit to and from Mars, as well as perhaps after landing, but definitely in transit. There’s a team that lived in a closed system in Alaska for a couple months who ate duckweed burgers and other such stuff. Duckweed is something like 17% protein if I recall correctly. (Yes, I sat through the talk. The gal giving it was a cute outdoorsy blonde. So shoot me.) Now, it could be argued that since we know duckweed isn’t toxic, (as most algaes have toxin genes activatable by conditiions – yes, even Christopher Hill’s spirulina causes immune system adjuvancy of a Th1 type that can aggravate autoimmunity) that we don’t need the genome. However, without the genome, we can’t engineer this versatile plant so well. And life on Mars is going to happen not just because of the environmental engineering, but also because of the molecular biology and organism engineering.Further, sanitary engineering needs improved duckweeds to treat things like female hormones, cocaine, and other pharmaceuticals that are affecting marine life. So I don’t really thnk it’s over the top at all. This is very significant, and extremely useful. I would liken genomic sequencing to the invention of paint or the invention of eyes. The long term significance of this is incredible.


  2. As for the importance of duckweed, it sounds like a useful organism. I did not know about the Mars thing not about the living off of duckweed (what exactly do they do to make burgers?). And, as someone who has sequenced many many genomes, I certainly think they are useful. But having the genome alone is simply a tool for doing other things. So saying the genome sequence will lead to all these benefits is truly over the top. It will help. But it is not sufficient.


  3. Such a stick in de mud! De ting about de duckweed is dat it don’ stick in de mud! 🙂 Ok. A little less coffee brain… Ahem! I don’t know how dem made de burgers. I just assumed dat dey compressed dem or dat dey ground dem up. Dey say de flavor not so bad. Made me tink dat maybe de astronauts eat dem duckweed, but dat to make dem like dem duckweed dem need spices. You can ask this gal ’bout it. Debi-Lee Wilkinson debi@gi.alaska.eduOf course the genome itself is not going to be the same as the work that can be done with the genome. But without it, all dem software noodlers can’t do nuttin. Dey spin dey gears and dey don’ come up wit’ nuttin.


  4. A little help here? I know nothing about comparative genomics in plants, but I imagine its far behind animals, and focused almost exclusively on agriculturally important organisms. What are the questions in the evolutionary biology of plants that having another organism’s data can help with?


  5. Well, genomics of plants has lagged a bit behind animals but some of that is due to genome size and complexity issues and not lack of interest.As for what questions are of interest, I can think of a few1. Evolutionary history of diversification of different plant forms (monocot-dicot, gymnosperm-angiosperm, etc)2. Origin of multicellularity in plants in comparison to that in animals3. History of polyploidization events and how that has influenced plant evolution4. Lateral gene transfer from organellesMany many more out there — as I do not really work on plants I am not in the know on the latest …


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