NASA's Space Wheat Inspires Faster Breeding On Earth

Amy Watson and Lee Hickey's test-plots of wheat grown under near-continuous light. The combination of so much light and appropriate nutrition allows six crops a year, so traits can be bred in over many generations. University of Queensland

If you need justifications for the cost of space programs beyond the quest for knowledge, there are frequently technological developments such as the early advances in solar cells. A collaboration between the Universities of Queensland and Sydney and the John Innes Centre, Norwich, has taken this one step further, using NASA research as inspiration for techniques to find better crop varieties. The products could feed a hungry world, but that world is more likely to be Earth than Mars.

NASA has been looking for the perfect crops to grow under lights on space missions, including the release of a short and fast-growing wheat called Apogee. Ten years ago, Queensland's Dr Lee Hickey wondered whether some of the same methods could be put to use speeding up the development of better crops down under.

Hickey told IFLScience it can take 20 years to breed traits into wheat if what's needed is complex and can't be added with a single round of hybridization. Instead, sometimes crosses have to be made over and over again, with some failed attempts, and at a rate of a single crop a year in the open air, or two a year in conventional greenhouses, which is not a quick process.

“As far back as the 1950s,” Hickey said, “Russian scientists were experimenting with growing crops under continuous light.” Yet the idea hadn't really taken off until recently. Hickey told IFLScience that when his team started working on it they found, “it's about much more than leaving the light on”. Only when 22-hour-a-day light is combined with the right nutrients and water supply is success achieved. Even then, not all crops respond well.

In the last year, however, the success of the work by Hickey and his colleagues has inspired several hundred requests, from 23 countries, for advice on how to use continuous light to get six wheat crops a year, a process called “speed breeding”. Rather than responding individually, the team have published their protocols for growing wheat and barley under near continuous light in Nature Plants.

The publication comes as the first product of Hickey's team's work, in partnership with Dow AgroSciences, is set to be commercially released. Named DS Faraday, the new breed of wheat will, its makers claim, solve a problem that has bedeviled Australian farmers for 40 years. Australian farms favor white grains that are better for milling, but are vulnerable to pre-harvest sprouting if rains come early. Speed breeding allows dormancy genes to be bred into DS Faraday three times faster than in ordinary greenhouses.

Although Hickey specializes in wheat and barley, the team demonstrated the applicability of their techniques to crops as distant from these as peanuts, and hope others will put this to use.

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