Farmers and breeders are in a race against the clock. The world population is growing rapidly and requires more and more food, but the amount of arable land is limited. Warmer temperatures prolonged growing seasons in some areas and caused droughts and pests in others.
"We are facing a major challenge in terms of the world's food," said Lee Hickey, a plant breeder at the University of Queensland in Australia. "If you look at the statistics, we will have about $ 10 billion on the planet by 2050 and we will need 60 to 80 percent more food to feed everyone. It's an even bigger challenge in the face of climate change and the diseases that affect our crops and are changing so rapidly. "
But plant breeding is a slow process. Developing new types of crops – higher yield, more nutrients, drought and disease resistance – can take a decade or more with ttraditional breeding techniques. Plant breeders are therefore working to speed up the pace.
Dr. Hickey's team is working on "fast reproduction," closely monitoring light and temperature to send plant growth to the next level. This allows researchers to harvest seeds and start growing the next crop generation faster.
Their technique was inspired by NASA's research on how to produce food in space stations. They encourage crops to bloom early by projecting blue and red LED lamps for 22 hours a day and maintaining temperatures between 62 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Last November, in a paper in Nature, they showed that they could grow up to six generations of wheat, barley, chickpeas and canola in a year, while traditional methods only allowed to get that ## 148 ## 39, one or two returns.
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Monday in Nature Biotechnology, Dr. Hickey and his team highlight the potential for rapid reproduction, as well as other techniquess that can help improve food security. According to researchers, the best way to create a new crop pipeline is to combine rapid selection with other advanced technologies, such as gene editing.
"What we're really talking about here is creating large-scale plants," said Dr. Hickey.
A new era in plant research has arrived, says Charlie Brummer, director of the Plant Breeding Center at the University of California at Davis, did not participate. Breeders and breeders have always tried to minimize the time needed to develop a new crop variety, but with new technologies such as rapid breeding, "we can do it better than in the past", did he declare.
Botanists began cultivating plants under artificial light – carbon arc lamps – 150 years ago. Since then, advances in LED technology have dramatically improved the accuracy with which scientists can adjust and customize lighting settings based on crop species.
Researchers have also adopted new genetic techniques to optimize flowering times and make plants more resistant to the rigors of a warming planet. Unlike older crop crossing and modification techniques, new tools such as Crispr allow scientists to extract portions of the plant's DNA that could make it vulnerable to disease. Hickey and his team are working to add Crispr machines directly to barley and sorghum plants to change plant genes while speeding up breeding.
It's easier said than done for some cultures. Potatoes and some other crops, such as alfalfa, are tetraploids, carrying four copies of each chromosome. (Humans and most animals are diploid, with two chromosomes, one from each parent). A breeder may want to remove a gene that decreases the yield of the crop, but there may be three additional copies of the gene on the other chromosomes of the plant.
This unique heritage model means that potatoes are usually sterile, and must be multiplied by harvesting them and replanting the tubers. Rapid reproduction and genetic editing can only accelerate the spread to a certain extent, said Benjamin Stich, a plant breeder at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Dr. Stich and his team develop a technique called genomic prediction to accelerate the identification of tubers with the desired traits. First, researchers analyze how different genes influence growth and yield. Next, they capture these data in computer models and extract predictions about which plants will have the best combination of genes and yield in the field.
"We can now predict multiple traits simultaneously, with great reliability," said Dr. Stich. I said. His team used this technique to successfully predict the sensitivity of tubers to potato blight, as well as their starch content, yield and ripeness.
With cheaper and more powerful technology, there are opportunities to improve crops around the world. Dr. Hickey's team plans to train breeders in India, Zimbabwe and Mali over the next two years, through collaboration with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics and subsidies. from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"It is important to ensure that this also benefits farmers in developing countries," said Dr. Hickey. Most fast breeders can be configured with a minimum of skills and, in countries where electricity and other resources are lacking, it is possible to use solar panels to power good LEDs market. The rapid improvement can also be combined with gene editing and genomic prediction.
"One technology alone will not solve our problems," said Dr. Hickey. "We are going to need all the tools of the shed."