Scientists speed-breeding plants in a race to beat climate change

Alex Whitebrook/ February 5, 2018/ News/ 0 comments

Some years ago, NASA bred wheat in space with the goal of providing an unending food supply for astronauts. To help the plant along, astronauts shined light on the plant continuously. As far as the crop was concerned, the sun never set. It was always noon on a cloudless day. The extra light fueled its rapid growth.

Researchers are now using the same technique here on Earth to quickly grow several successive generations of wheat in an effort to breed a crop that can stand up to persistent drought, severe heat or heavy rainfall driven by climate change. Their experiments created a wheat cycle from seed to seed in just eight weeks, making it possible to grow as many as six generations of wheat in a single year.

Scientists believe that the process can make more food in a shorter period of time to feed an ever-growing hungry world; at the same time, the ability to produce more crops more quickly will facilitate researchers’ ability to experiment with different genetic combinations to develop more climate resistant strains.

“Globally, we face a huge challenge in breeding higher yielding and more resilient crops,” said Brande Wulff, a crops genetics scientist at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England. “Being able to cycle through more generations in less time will allow us to more rapidly create and test genetic combinations, looking for the best combinations for different environments.”

Speed breeding represents a significant improvement over “shuttle-breeding,” a technique pioneered after World War II that allowed farmers to plant just two generations annually. The first generation would take root in the summer, and the second would take root in the winter, having been shuttled to a warmer locale. Speed breeding allows researchers to grow an additional four generations of wheat each year.

Researchers grew their crops by boosting photosynthesis, the process by which plants produce food using energy from the sun. They did this by exposing the plants to light from LEDs for up to 22 hours a day. “We also provide the plants with a slightly more intense fertilizer to sustain the rapid growth,” Wulff said. “We have found that it is essentially a simple technology that has proven itself easy to install and adopt in different labs around the world.”

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