Agri Business

Speed breeding to hasten development of new crop varieties

TV Jayan New Delhi | Updated on March 05, 2019 Published on March 05, 2019

Lee Hickey with Icrisat scientist Pooja Bhatnagar

Speed breeding, a crop breeding technique originally developed by NASA in the eighties to help grow crops in space, can hasten the process of developing new crop varieties and many Indian plant scientists are already showing interest in exploring the idea.

The technique, which uses artificial light and temperature conditions to speed up the crossing and inbreeding of varieties, received attention at the recently-concluded 14th Agricultural Science Congress here, with Lee Hickey, an Australian plant scientist who developed Australia’s first high-protein milling wheat variety, giving a plenary.

Hickey, who is with the University of Queensland, is already working in collaboration with the Hyderabad-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat).

“Together with our partners at Icrisat, we are trying to adapt the speed breeding approach to crops like pigeonpea, millets, sorghum and groundnut. These are the crops that they are working on and they are important for food and nutrition security in many countries in Africa and Asia, Hickey told BusinessLine.

‘Protocols to be adapted’

“This is definitely a challenge. The system we have enables wheat to grow seeds-to-seeds quickly, but the recipe we have for doing this won’t work if we try to do it directly in other species. So we need to adapt the protocols and work out what are the right light treatments, temperatures and they need to be optimised subsequently,” Hickey said.

The wheat variety that Hickey’s team developed, in partnership with Dow Seeds, was commercially released for use last year. Besides increasing the yield significantly, the new variety, named DS Faraday, is tolerant to pre-harvest sprouting — the premature germination of grains due to prolonged rainfall and high humidity conditions.

“It took us 10 years to develop Faraday, from the start of the project to the release. It may sound like a pretty long time. But, this is completely a novel trait. All varieties in Australia are otherwise susceptible to pre-harvest sprouting. We introduced these genes from landraces from China and Africa,” Hickey said.

“We did rapid crossing and selection to develop this high-quality wheat variety,” he said.

Giant leap

According to the Queensland scientist, speed breeding techniques can help plant breeders grow six generations of spring wheat, chickpea and barley and four generations of canola plants in specially modified glasshouses. In comparison, they can grow only one or two generations in the field and two or three in normal glasshouses.

“So, this helps shorten the breeding cycle of new varieties significantly. The speed breeding system is used normally for accelerating the development of plants that have better genetics and then they go to the fields. In fields, they need to be tested for yield, disease resistance and quality,” he said.

Hickey admitted that developing speed breeding protocols for crops is expensive. We need a lot of investment. However, he said, over the years the costs are coming down thanks to the advent of LED lighting.

He also added that the cost of building such controlled environments can also be brought down if shipping containers are used.

“Using refrigerated shipping containers fitted with LED lights, we can bring down the cost of building such speed breeding systems substantially,” Hickey said.

Published on March 05, 2019
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