As we address global food security, shrinking arable farmland, dramatic shifts in weather, climate change and a population predicted to swell from 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion people by 2050, controlled growth environments and speed breeding techniques that greatly shorten seed generation time to accelerate breeding and crop research may prove the answer to producing food in the future.
While speed breeding techniques were initially developed by NASA in the 1980s to grow food crops in space, prominent science research institutes like the University of Queensland and the John Innes Centre have recently advanced speed breeding protocols and adapted the technique to work in large scale glass houses and growth chambers using supplemental lighting.
Located within the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, the Hickey Lab conducts discovery and applied research on wheat and barley, Australia’s most important cereal crops. The research team is led by Dr Lee Hickey, who for more than a decade has played a pivotal role in plant breeding and genetics.
Protocols of the Speed Breeding Research
Dr. Lee Hickey and his team adapted a flexible protocol for speed breeding that utilizes prolonged photoperiods to accelerate the developmental rates of plants, the harvesting and germination of immature seeds to significantly reduce generation time.
To evaluate speed breeding as a method to accelerate basic and applied research in cereal crops, Dr. Lee Hickey and his team set up two different grow environments, both were temperature controlled glass houses but only one was fitted with Heliospectra’s LED grow light EOS.
The grow lights were used as a supplemental light source to provide 22 hours of extended photoperiod and 2 hours of darkness.
EOS's fixed spectrum also enabled them to have optimal light intensities and provide targeted wavelengths from the full spectrum offered by the grow lights.
In both glass houses, the Hickey research team grew high quality genotypes of major food crops like spring bread wheat, barley and chickpea.
Dr. Lee Hickey’s team compared the growth rate between the two environments. The plants grown in the glass house with only natural daylight produced only 2 to 3 generations that year while the plants grown in the glass house under supplemental light had 4 to 6 generations that year.
A New Era in Plant Research
The outcome of the research conducted by Dr. Lee Hickey’s team demonstrates that speed breeding in controlled-environment glass houses can accelerate plant development for research purposes by twice as many crop cycles a year, including phenotyping of adult plant traits, mutant studies and genetic transformation.
Using supplemental lighting in a glasshouse environment allows rapid generation cycling through single seed descent and potential for adaptation to larger-scale crop improvement programs.
The ability to provide high light intensities and photoperiod increases plant growth by maintaining optimal light levels and saves energy by eliminating any excess use of light the plants do not need.
Dr. Lee Hickey and his team have also conducted trials in glasshouses and developed protocols suitable for speed breeding in glasshouses.
With powerful technology and research, opportunities are opening up to improve crops around the world.