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Techniques Devised to Speed-Up Plant Breeding

Speed breeding

LEDs illuminate speed breeding greenhouse (University of Queensland)

2 January 2018. Plant scientists in Australia and the U.K. developed a process that sharply cuts the amount of time needed to produce new breeds of plant crops including commercial varieties of wheat. A team from University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia and John Innes Centre in Norwich, U.K. describes its techniques in yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature Plants (paid subscription required).

The researchers led by plant geneticists Lee Hickey at Queensland and Brande Wulff at the John Innes Centre are seeking ways to speed up the development of new crop varieties to meet critical needs imposed by a rapidly growing population and a changing climate. Current breeding techniques can return 2 or 3 generations of crops like wheat and chickpeas in per year greenhouses, or 1 generation in the field. Demands of population and climate change on food security, say the authors, require a faster turnover of plant generations.

The techniques Hickey, Wulff, and colleagues call speed breeding are designed for greenhouses, where the growing environment is completely enclosed, and conditions can be monitored and controlled. The researchers adapted methods tested in space by NASA to find food sources for deep-space travelers, including the use of light-emitting diodes or LEDs to provide a constant source of light. Most current techniques for constant illumination use sodium vapor lamps, like those in street lights, which the authors say give off lower-quality light and generate too much heat.

The team combined constant LED lighting with the introduction of new genes to produce sets of desired traits for not only growing the plants faster, but also decreasing the turnaround time for new plant generations, from seed planting to seed harvest. The results, say the authors, are up to 6 generations per year of spring wheat, durum wheat, barley, peas, and chickpeas, as well as 4 generations of canola plants, instead of 2-3 generations per year. The paper also documents cost savings from the use of LEDs.

In addition to growing test plants faster than under normal methods, speed breeding also produces higher-quality crops, contrary to warnings that speed breeding would return plants lower in quality. “People said you may be able to cycle plants fast,” says Wulff in a John Innes Centre statement, “but they will look tiny and insignificant, and only set a few seed. In fact, the new technology creates plants that look better and are healthier than those using standard conditions.”

While the team initially designed speed breeding for research labs, commercial seed companies are taking notice. Working with colleagues from Dow AgroSciences in Australia, the Queensland team applied speed breeding to develop the DS Faraday variety of wheat, which the company plans to release later this year. “DS Faraday is a high protein, milling wheat with tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting,” says Hickey in a Queensland statement. “We introduced genes for grain dormancy so it can better handle wet weather at harvest time, which has been a problem wheat scientists in Australia have been trying to solve for 40 years.”

John Innes Centre says the company RAGT Seeds Ltd in the U.K. is also working with Wulff’s lab to develop speed breeding in a commercial setting. In the following video, Hickey tells more about the technique.

From The University of Queensland on Vimeo.

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