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‘Speed breeding’ could boost future crop production

NASA experiments to grow wheat in space have caused a group of Australian scientists to create a speed breeding program that could take nearly 10 years off of the time it takes to generate new crops, a new study published in Nature Plants reports.

Crop varieties are important because they allow farmers to both fight disease and improve yield. Unfortunately, generating never-before-seen strains is not a quick process. It typically takes between 10 and 20 years to successfully breed resistant or productive traits into crops.

To get around that time frame, researchers at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) took a technique used by NASA astronauts to get plants to grow faster in space and tried the method on Earth as a way to speed up the development of new plant breeds. The study shows that transition was a success.

“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,” said study co-author Lee Hickey, a researcher at QAAFI, according to ABC Online. “What it means is we can achieve up to six generations per year instead of just one in the field every year.”

The team began using the new technique ten years ago. While the method has only been used for research purposes so far, there has been a lot of interest across the industry to try and put it into broader use. That is largely because, according to estimates, the Earth will need to produce 60 to 80 percent more food by 2050.

The rising demand for the process motivated researchers to write a paper that would allow other groups to replicate the method. In their research, the team managed to create the new “DS Faraday” — a high protein milling wheat variety to be released later in 2018. The species is better equipped than current strains to handle wet weather at harvest time, and shows the process works.

Now that they known speed planting is successful, researchers next plan to move on from wheat and see how else they can help spur modern crops. That could include more experimentation or even using the process with other methods.

“Speed breeding as a platform can be combined with lots of other technologies such as CRISPR gene editing to get to the end result faster,” added Hickey, according to UPI.

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