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Technology first used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to grow plants in space is fast-tracking improvements in a range of crops. Scientists at the United Kingdom’s John Innes Centre, Earlham Institute and Quadram Institute, and Australia’s University of Queensland, have improved the technique.

Known as speed breeding, the technique will now work in glasshouses and small growth chambers. The ability to work at those scales enables scientists to breed disease-resistant and climate-resilient crops to feed a growing global population.

Speed breeding uses enhanced light-emitting-diode lighting and day-long regimes of as much as 22 hours to optimize photosynthesis and promote rapid crop growth. It speeds the breeding cycle of plants. For example six generations of wheat can be grown per year compared to two generations using traditional breeding methods.

Speed breeding allows scientists and plant breeders to fast-track genetic improvements such as yield gain, disease resistance and climate resilience in a range of crops such as wheat, barley, oilseed rape and peas. Being able to do that in a compact desktop chamber enables affordable research on a range of crops to occur before experiments are increased to larger glass houses.

The latest advances come at a crucial time for European crop development. They follow a decision in summer by the European Union’s Court of Justice; it ruled that crops improved using modern gene-editing techniques should be classed as genetically modified organisms.

Brande Wulff, a wheat scientist at the John Innes Centre and one of the lead authors on the speed-breeder paper, explains European crop research and breeding will become more dependent on speed breeding in light of that ruling.

“Speed breeding allows researchers to rapidly mobilize the genetic variation found in wild relatives of crops and introduce it into elite varieties that can be grown by farmers,” Wulff said. “The European Union ruling that heavily regulates gene editing means we ‘re more reliant on speed breeding to grow sturdier and more resilient crops.”

Wulff’s team at the John Innes Centre has developed techniques such as rapid gene discovery and cloning that, with speed breeding, would allow crop improvements via a non-genetically modified route.

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

Speed-breeding technology will become the norm in research institutes, Wulff said.

“More institutes across the world will be adopting this technology and by sharing these protocols we’re providing a pathway for accelerating crop research, Wulff said.

Sreya Ghosh, a postgraduate student at the John Innes Centre and first author on the paper, said, “A lot of researchers want to speed up their crop breeding but don’t have access to state-of-the-art growth chambers or large glasshouses. The scaled-down growth cabinet means technology is accessible. Researchers can set it up on their desk to benefit from speed breeding.”

The study, “Speed breeding in growth chambers and glasshouses for crop breeding and model plant research, “ recently was published in “Nature Protocols.”

Visit and search for QAUJqmOkmKk to watch a video about speed breeding.