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Norwich crop scientists make ‘speed breeding’ breakthrough

Dr Brande Wulff at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Picture: John Innes Centre.

Dr Brande Wulff at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, Picture: John Innes Centre.

John Innes Centre

Norwich plant scientists have pioneered new “speed breeding” techniques which could rapidly accelerate the farming industry’s global quest for crop improvement.

Crops growing under lights in a greenhouse. Picture: University of Queensland.Crops growing under lights in a greenhouse. Picture: University of Queensland.

The team from the John Innes Centre (JIC) has been working with partners in Australia to find faster ways to grow generations of cross-bred crops, in order to speed up the development of better and more resilient varieties.

The time-consuming process of crossing, growing, selecting and trialling means it can take many years to breed new seeds carrying vital genetic traits for improved yield, nutritional quality or resistance to disease.

But by growing plants in glasshouses under intensive LED lighting, optimised to aid photosynthesis, for up to 22 hours per day, researchers said they can grow as many as six generations of wheat every year – a three-fold increase on the techniques currently used by breeders.

Dr Brande Wulff of the JIC, said: “Globally, we face a huge challenge in breeding higher yielding and more resilient crops.

“Being able to cycle through more generations in less time will allow us to more rapidly create and test genetic combinations and find the best combinations for different environments.

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

“I would like to think that in 10 years from now you could walk into a field and point to plants whose attributes and traits were developed using this technology.”

Dr Wulff is lead author of a paper about speed breeding published in the scientific journal Nature Plants. As the improvement rates of several staple crops have stalled in recent years, despite the need to feed a burgeoning global population, he said the impact of the speed breeding breakthrough could eventually rank alongside the shuttle-breeding techniques introduced in the “green revolution” after the Second World War.

The international team, including scientists at the University of Queensland and University of Sydney, has achieved up to six generations per year for bread wheat, durum wheat, barley, pea, and chickpea; and four generations for canola, a form of rapeseed.

One of the seed breeding companies interested in the research is RAGT Seeds, based in Essex. Ruth Bryant, a wheat pathologist at the firm, said: “Breeders are always looking for ways to speed up the process of getting a variety to market so we are really interested in the concept of speed breeding. We are working closely with Dr Wulff’s group at the John Innes Centre to develop this method in a commercial setting.”

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