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Faster Crop Breeding Techniques Made Available to Other Scientists

Growing wheat

(walfred, Pixabay)

16 Nov. 2018. Plant scientists in the U.K. and Australia are making available to their colleagues experimental techniques that speed-up breeding cycles for more commercial crop varieties. Researchers from John Innes Centre, a plant science research institute in Norwich, U.K. and several other institutions describe their technology in today’s issue of the journal Nature Protocols (paid subscription required).

The team led by John Innes Centre geneticist Brande Wulff are seeking ways to reduce seed-to-seed breeding cycles of plant crops, initially for research, but eventually commercial agriculture. Plant scientists need to develop crop varieties more resistant to more demanding conditions like heat and drought as a result climate change. But at the same time, legal restrictions in Europe against genetically modified plant species, now including gene-edited varieties, call for new research and development strategies.

Among the new methods are shorter breeding cycles, using methods adapted from the U.S. space program. As reported by Science & Enterprise in January 2018, Wulff and University of Queensland plant geneticist Lee Hickey — a co-senior author on the new paper — use methods designed for enclosed and controlled environments, such as greenhouses, with LED lights to provide constant illumination. Plant scientists devised similar techniques for NASA in the U.S. to help feed deep-space travelers.

Current breeding methods allow for growing 2 generations of crops in greenhouses and a single generation in the field. With speed breeding, the researchers can reduce a single cycle today to about 8 weeks. In addition to constant lighting, the techniques involve changes to soil composition, controlled temperature, modified plant spacing, and early seed harvests. In their paper, the researchers report reducing growing cycles with bread wheat, durum wheat, barley, oats, chickpeas, grass peas, quinoa, several types of brassica or cabbages, and brachypodium distachyon, a model grass species related to a number cereal grains.

The need for new plant breeding strategies was underscored in July by a ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union that classified gene-edited crops as genetically-modified organisms, requiring the same restrictions as those imposed on all GMO varieties. “Speed breeding,” says Wulff in a John Innes Centre statement, “allows researchers to rabidly mobilize the genetic variation found in wild relatives of crops and introduce it into elite varieties that can be grown by farmers. The EU ruling that heavily regulates gene editing means we are more reliant on speed breeding to grow sturdier, more resilient crops.”

To help make these techniques more readily available to researchers, the authors provide instructions for research colleagues to generate similar results in smaller-scale environments and without expensive greenhouses. The team’s call these desktop research units growth cabinets, and the researchers believe they will help make it easier for other plant scientists to get similar results with other species.

Postgraduate student and first author of the paper Sreya Ghosh notes, “It was important to us that we develop something that could be bought quickly and set up with minimum skill. This scaled down growth cabinet means the technology is accessible and democratic. Researchers all over the world can set it up on their desk to get the benefits of speed breeding for their research program.”

Wulff, Hickey, and Ghosh tell more about the project in the following video.

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