NASA’s new tech can boost wheat yield by three times in space

Melbourne: Inspired by NASA’s experiments to grow wheat in space, Australian scientists have developed the world’s first ‘speed breeding’ technique that can boost the production of the crop by up to three times. The NASA experiments involved using continuous light on wheat which triggered early reproduction in the plants.

“We thought we could use the NASA idea to grow plants quickly back on Earth, and in turn, accelerate the genetic gain in our plant breeding programs,” said Lee Hickey, Senior Research Fellow at University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia. “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,” Hickey said.

“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,” he said. There has been a lot of interest globally in this technique due to the fact that the world has to produce 60-80 per cent more food by 2050 to feed its nine billion people, researchers said. The speed breeding technique has largely been used for research purposes but is now being adopted by industry.

In partnership with Dow Agro Sciences, the scientists have used the technique to develop the new ‘DS Faraday’ wheat variety due for release to industry this year. “DS Faraday is a high protein, milling wheat with tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting,” Hickey 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,” Hickey said. “We have finally had a breakthrough in grain dormancy, and speed breeding really helped us to do it,” he said. UQ PhD student Amy Watson, a co-first author of the paper published in the journal Nature Plants, conducted some of the key experiments that documented the rapid plant growth and flexibility of the system for multiple crop species. The new technology “could also have some great applications in future vertical farming systems, and some horticultural crops,” Hickey added.