New technique opens door to faster crop breeding programmes

Scientists have drastically cut the time needed to breed new crop varieties using a combination of artificial environments and intense day-long lighting regimes using LED lights.

The speed-breeding platform allows as many as six generations of wheat to be grown in a single year, three times faster than the shuttle-breeding techniques currently used by breeders and researchers.

Six generations is also possible for bread wheat, durum wheat, barley, pea and chickpea, with four possible for canola.

See also: Job profile: What it’s like to be a plant breeder

Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre, Norwich, part of the international team with the University of Queensland and University of Sydney, said the improvement rates of several staple crops has stalled, but this new technique could overcome this.

Overcoming bottlenecks

“People said you may be able to cycle plants fast, but they will look tiny and insignificant, and only set a few seed,” said Dr Wulff. “In fact, the new technology creates plants that look better and are healthier than those using standard conditions.”

Dr Wulff added he expects to see crops developed using this speed-breeding technique being grown in the field in 10 years’ time.

Wheat breeders have welcomed the development, and have been working with the team at the John Innes Centre to develop the method in a commercial setting.

It has already been used by Dow AgroSciences to overcome major barriers to breed wheat with tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting (PHS) – a major problem in Australia.

“Environmental control for effective PHS screening and the long time taken to cycle through several cycles of recurrent selection were major bottlenecks.

“The speed breeding and targeted selection platform have driven major gains for both of these areas of concerns.”

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