Open Access Research article

Survey of the total fatty acid and triacylglycerol composition and content of 30 duckweed species and cloning of a Δ6-desaturase responsible for the production of γ-linolenic and stearidonic acids in Lemna gibba

Yiheng Yan1, Jason Candreva1, Hai Shi1, Evan Ernst2, Robert Martienssen2, Jorg Schwender1 and John Shanklin1*

Author Affiliations

1 Biosciences Department, BNL 463, 50 Bell Ave, Upton, NY 11973, USA

2 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1 Bungtown Rd, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724, USA

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BMC Plant Biology 2013, 13:201  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-13-201

Published: 5 December 2013



Duckweeds, i.e., members of the Lemnoideae family, are amongst the smallest aquatic flowering plants. Their high growth rate, aquatic habit and suitability for bio-remediation make them strong candidates for biomass production. Duckweeds have been studied for their potential as feedstocks for bioethanol production; however, less is known about their ability to accumulate reduced carbon as fatty acids (FA) and oil.


Total FA profiles of thirty duckweed species were analysed to assess the natural diversity within the Lemnoideae. Total FA content varied between 4.6% and 14.2% of dry weight whereas triacylglycerol (TAG) levels varied between 0.02% and 0.15% of dry weight. Three FA, 16:0 (palmitic), 18:2Δ9,12 (Linoleic acid, or LN) and 18:3Δ9,12,15 (α-linolenic acid, or ALA) comprise more than 80% of total duckweed FA. Seven Lemna and two Wolffiela species also accumulate polyunsaturated FA containing Δ6-double bonds, i.e., GLA and SDA. Relative to total FA, TAG is enriched in saturated FA and deficient in polyunsaturated FA, and only five Lemna species accumulate Δ6-FA in their TAG. A putative Δ6-desaturase designated LgDes, with homology to a family of front-end Δ6-FA and Δ8-spingolipid desaturases, was identified in the assembled DNA sequence of Lemna gibba. Expression of a synthetic LgDes gene in Nicotiana benthamiana resulted in the accumulation of GLA and SDA, confirming it specifies a Δ6-desaturase.


Total accumulation of FA varies three-fold across the 30 species of Lemnoideae surveyed. Nine species contain GLA and SDA which are synthesized by a Δ6 front-end desaturase, but FA composition is otherwise similar. TAG accumulates up to 0.15% of total dry weight, comparable to levels found in the leaves of terrestrial plants. Polyunsaturated FA is underrepresented in TAG, and the Δ6-FA GLA and SDA are found in the TAG of only five of the nine Lemna species that produce them. When present, GLA is enriched and SDA diminished relative to their abundance in the total FA pool.

Desaturase; Fatty acid; Triacylglycerol; Lemnoideae; Duckweed; Lemna; Wolffiela; Renewable feedstock; Biofuel