Space age plant breeding

GLOBAL PLANTS RI Farm
BREAKTHROUGH: Plants grown on International Space Station lead to breeding breakthrough on Earth. (Photo: NASA/ISS)

TECHNOLOGY first used by NASA to grow plants in space is fast tracking improvements in a range of crops.

Scientists in the UK and Australia improved the technique, known as speed breeding, by adapting it to work in vast glass houses and in scaled-down desktop growth chambers.

This gives them greater opportunities than ever before to breed disease resistant, climate resilient and nutritious crop.

Speed breeding uses enhanced LED lighting and day-long regimes of up to 22 hours to optimise photosynthesis and promote rapid growth of crops.

It speeds up the breeding cycle of plants – six generations of wheat can be grown a year, compared to two generations using traditional breeding.

It means scientists and plant breeders can fast-track genetic improvements such as yield gain, disease resistance and climate resilience in a range of crops including wheat, barley, oilseed rape and pea.

Doing this in a compact desktop chamber allows affordable, cutting-edge research on a range of crops before the experiments are scaled up to larger glass houses.

The advance comes at an opportune time after the European Court of Justice ruled that crops improved using gene-editing tech-

niques should be classed as genetically modified organisms.

Wheat scientist Brande Wulff of the UK’s John Innes Centre says European crop research and breeding will become more dependent on speed breeding as a result.

“Speed breeding allows res-earchers to rapidly mobilise the genetic variation found in wild relatives of crops and introduce it into elite varieties that can be grown by farmers,” Wulff says.

Collaborators in Australia, now experiencing one of the worst droughts on record, are using the technology to rapidly cycle genetic improvements to make crops more drought resilient.

Wulff predicts the speed breeding technology will become the norm in research institutes.

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