NASA experiments to grow wheat in space have inspired Australian scientists to develop a world-first speed-breeding program that cuts a decade off the time it takes to deliver new varieties.
New varieties are critical to fighting disease or improving yield, but it can take between 10 and 20 years to breed resistant or productive traits into crops.
But when Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) senior research fellow Dr Lee Hickey saw NASA astronauts using continuous light to trick plants into growing faster in space, he saw a method that could be manipulated to speed up the development of new plant breeds.
“We can go from seed to seed in just six weeks for wheat barley and it works for a whole bunch of other crops that we grow on a big scale in Australia and other countries around the world like chick pea or canola,” he said.
“Our experiments showed that the quality and yield of the plants grown under controlled climate and extended daylight conditions was as good or sometimes better than those grown in regular glasshouses.”
The University of Queensland (UQ) team began trialling the new techniques l0 years ago, and the work has now been published in Nature Plants.
So far the technique has been largely used for research purposes, but there’s been overwhelming interest from industry to put the method into broader practice.
“Over the last 12 months, we’ve received an overwhelming, ridiculous number of requests for our protocols of speed breeding from scientists and plant breeders from more than 23 countries from around the world.
“It motivated us to write a paper where we provided all the protocols freely available to everyone who wants them.”
Working in conjunction with Dow Agrosciences, the UQ team developed the new “DS Faraday” — a high protein milling wheat variety to be released later in 2018.
“We introduced genes for grain dormancy so it can better handle wet weather at harvest time,” Dr Hickey said.
“[It] has been a problem wheat scientists in Australia have been trying to solve for 40 years.
Researchers are now investigating using speed breeding to help develop new varieties for other modern crops.
“It could also have some great applications in future vertical farming systems, and some horticultural crops,” Dr Hickey said.
“This tool is going to be really powerful to speed up the development of our future crops.”