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NASA’s ‘space wheat’ is helping earthbound farmers grow crops quicker

Speed Breeding: space-inspired technology driving crop improvement

Could technology first used by NASA to grow plants on other planets also help farmers improve crop yield here on Earth? According to researchers at the U.K.’s John Innes Center and Australia’s University of Queensland the answer is “affirmative.” They are employing some of the speed breeding techniques pioneered by the U.S. aerospace program to breed more disease resistant, climate resilient, and nutritious crops. In the process, they hope to take one giant leap for humankind when it comes to creating new ways to feed the global population.

“The NASA-funded research aiming to grow wheat in space was the initial inspiration for our crop speed breeding technology,” Dr. Lee Hickey, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Center for Crop Science, told Digital Trends. “This effort started back in the 1980s with researchers at Utah State University in the U.S. They managed to breed a wheat variety specially designed for growing in space, called Apogee. It was a full dwarf variety and was selected to grow fast under a continuous 24-hour light. In long-day plants such as wheat, the extra light triggers the reproductive stage, and so plants flower earlier and produce grain faster. We thought this could be a pretty useful tool to help speed up our crop research and breeding efforts here on planet Earth.”

The current population trajectory on this planet suggests that, by 2050, it will be necessary to produce 80 percent more food than we do now. This will additionally need to be produced in the face of a fluctuating climate and evolving pests and diseases. Using their speed breeding techniques, the researchers on this project have shown that it is possible to grow up to six generations of crops per year for several staple foods, including wheat and barley. These are grown in special glasshouse or growth chamber facilities under supplemental lighting.

Not only does this mean more food, but also the ability to more quickly breed in genetic improvements — such as making crops more resilient to droughts. This can be done without the genetic engineering techniques which are not readily welcomed around the world.

“Scientists around the world are trying to track down genes for tolerance to drought and warmer temperatures,” Hickey continued. “While good progress is being made, a major bottleneck is transferring these genes into elite varieties because such novel genetic variation for such traits is typically found in wild or ancient plant varieties. This requires many cycles of crossbreeding and selection. But using speed breeding means a new variety incorporating these new traits could be available within six to eight years, rather than 15 to 20 years.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Protocols.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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