UQ Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) senior research fellow Dr Lee Hickey with wheat grown under extended light periods.
UQ Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) senior research fellow Dr Lee Hickey with wheat grown under extended light periods. Contributed

Rocket fuel for industry

NASA's attempt to grow wheat in space has led to a scientific breakthrough for the grain industry.

UQ Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) senior research fellow Lee Hickey was part of a team of Australian scientists who watched NASA's experiment with interest.

The scientists have since mirrored some of the techniques designed for space on home soil, and have discovered they can shave years off the plant breeding cycle.

"We heard the scientists were trying to grow wheat in space,” he said.

"One of the tricks they were implementing to speed through the crop cycles faster was to expose the plants to extended photo periods, or extended light.

"So the plants didn't sleep.

"It tricked them into producing grain much faster and means they can go from seed to seed really quickly.

"We thought this could be a cool tool to speed up crop breeding here in Australia.”

After refining their technique, deciding to give plants 22 hours of light and adjusting nutrient levels, the team has had success.

In layman's terms, Dr Hickey explained speed breeding was like pressing "fast forward” on the plant variety development.

"Plant breeding is such a long and slow process.

"It can take up to 10-20 years to create an improved crop variety for farmers.

"Using this new tool we can speed up the whole process.

"By using speed breeding techniques in specially modified glasshouses we can grow six generations of wheat, chickpea and barley plants, and four generations of canola plants in a single year - as opposed to two or three generations in a regular glasshouse, or a single generation in the field.

"Our experiments showed that the quality and yield of the plants grown under controlled climate and extended daylight conditions was as good, or sometimes better, than those grown in regular glasshouses.”

UQ scientists, in partnership with Dow AgroSciences, have used the technique to develop the new 'DS Faraday' which farmers can take up this year.

"DS Faraday is a high protein, milling wheat with tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting,” he said.

"We introduced genes for grain dormancy so it can better handle wet weather at harvest time - which has been a problem wheat scientists in Australia have been trying to solve for 40 years.

"We've finally had a breakthrough in grain dormancy, and speed breeding really helped us to do it.”

Now that the discovery has given the plant breeding process a boost of rocket fuel, Dr Hickery said the sky was the limit.

He is currently investigating the integration of speed breeding with other modern crop breeding technologies.

"It could also have some great applications in future vertical farming systems, and some horticultural crops,” he said.



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