Our planet is expected to host an extra two billion people by 2050, but the amount of arable land we've got to work with won't be changing all that much. How exactly we're going to feed all these hungry mouths is a problem scientists are looking at from every angle, including creating heat-resistant cows, vertical farms and lab-grown hamburgers. Researchers are now reporting an advance in a NASA-inspired field known as "speed breeding" that relies on intense lighting regimes to raise crops several times faster, and boost their health at the same time.

Developed by scientists at the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland (UQ) and the John Innes Centre, the technique builds on research trialled by NASA more than a decade ago as a way of producing food during space missions. It sees the crops raised here on Earth inside a glasshouse, under continuous low-cost LEDs that emit light at specific wavelengths to boost photosynthesis.

"The far-red spectrum is important for triggering the reproductive growth and also light intensity for healthy robust plants," study co-author and UQ Senior Research Fellow Lee Hickey tells New Atlas.

Using its carefully crafted lighting setup, the team was able to grow six generations of wheat, chickpea and barley plants and four of canola plants in a single year, as opposed to two or three in the glasshouse or a single generation in the field. It says it also works for peanuts, amaranth and lentils, and expects it to work for sunflower, pepper and radish.

"In the glasshouse we currently use high pressure sodium vapor lamps and these are quite expensive in terms of the electricity demand," says Hickey. "In our paper we demonstrate that wheat and barley populations can be grown at a density of about 900 plants per square meter, thus in combination with LED light systems, this presents an exciting opportunity to scale up the operation for industry use."

Hickey says the speed breeding technique has the potential to not only boost yields for farmers, but lead to crops of better quality. The team compared plant features such as the amount of tillers and grains per spike to those grown under regular greenhouse conditions, finding that often the speed bred plants came out on top. Raising plants this fast has been possible before, but producing healthy specimens that compare to the real deal hasn't been so easy.

"People said you may be able to cycle plants fast, but they will look tiny and insignificant, and only set a few seeds," said Dr Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre, lead author on the paper. "In fact, the new technology creates plants that look better and are healthier than those using standard conditions. One colleague could not believe it when he first saw the results."

And cycling through the generations at a faster rate could have ramifications for testing and developing genetic combinations that are more resilient and suitable for different climates. Although the speed breeding technique doesn't incorporate GM technology as it stands, the team says that if combined, the two have great potential.

"Speed breeding is a 'non-GM' method for accelerating the development of our crops," says Hickey. "This is good news for crops like wheat, where GM is not accepted. However, we demonstrate in our paper that GM technology is very compatible with speed breeding. I believe the greatest gains from speed breeding will be the successful integration of the tool with other plant breeding technologies, like genomics or CRISPR."

While the technology has been largely tested in the lab so far, it is attracting interest from the industry. For example, Australian company Dow AgroSciences has used speed breeding to develop a wheat variety with greater resistance to pre-harvest sprouting.

"I would like to think that in 10 years from now you could walk into a field and point to plants whose attributes and traits were developed using this technology," says Wulff.

The research was published in the journal Nature Plants, and you can hear from Hickey in the video below.

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