The Tiny but Mighty Duckweed May Help Clean Up the Planet

The Tiny but Mighty Duckweed May Help Clean Up the Planet

Associate Professor of Biology Theodore Muth’s research on the small aquatic plant focuses on how its microbiome might help it mediate pollutants in our freshwater sources.

Studying the microbiome of duckweed may sound like one of those arcane subjects for specialists in the field of biology and microbiology. Still, for Associate Professor Theodore Muth, the inquiry holds an essential key to far more accessible issues like environmental sustainability and clean water. Muth, a recipient of a Leonard ’50 and Claire ’52 Tow Faculty Research Travel Fellowship, has recently returned from a six-week fellowship to study duckweed in Japan.

Theodore Muth
Theodore Muth

“Protection of our natural resources and sustainability in the face of climate change and other anthropogenic stressors is a significant issue,” he says. “I have young kids and I worry about what type of world we will be handing off to them.”

Muth, who joined the faculty of Brooklyn College in 2000, and is today deputy chair in the Biology Department, has published numerous articles on cell biology and microbiology. A focus of his lab is to investigate the diversity and dynamics of urban microbial communities. One area of study involves duckweed, a small flowering aquatic plant, and how it functions in bioremediation, a process where naturally occurring or deliberately introduced microorganisms are used to consume or break down pollutants. His students have studied the waters from ponds in Prospect Park, Central Park, and other freshwater sources in the New York area, and Muth says that their work refined his interest.

“We particularly wish to understand how the bacteria that are growing on the surface of the duckweed plants (their microbiome) can help the plant itself tolerate stressful conditions, and how the bacteria in the duckweed microbiome might be able to enhance the use of duckweed in bioremediation of pollutants.”

“Protection of our natural resources and sustainability in the face of climate change and other anthropogenic stressors is a significant issue. I have young kids and I worry about what type of world we will be handing off to them.”

—Theodore Muth

Muth chose to use his travel fellowship—a grant of $4,000—to travel to Japan and work with two leading scientists in the field, Professor Masaaki Morikawa at Hokkaido University in Sapporo and Professor Tokitaka Oyama at Kyoto University. Morikawa has pioneered the identification and study of bacteria that can boost the growth of duckweed and facilitate their ability to counteract pollutants in contaminated waters.

Muth believes the research done with the Tow travel fellowship will help him to better train his students, the scientists of the future, to do battle with issues of pollution and sustainability. “This new knowledge and these new skills, and new professional connections, will help my lab, my students, and my colleagues at Brooklyn College in our efforts toward making New York City a more resilient and sustainable city.”

For a complete list of faculty awards, visit Faculty Honors, Awards, and Grants.

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