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Integrating breeding technologies to supercharge future crops

The inspiration for the development of ‘Speed Breeding’ came from the first food product designed and purposefully bred for growing in space, a variety of wheat called USU-Apogee. Because there is not much space inside the spacecraft, they needed to maximise the number of wheat plants and grow them very quickly.

We thought this concept had potential to accelerate crop research and breeding on Earth. My colleagues have been trialing this for more than a decade, and over the years we have slowly refined and streamlined it into a powerful breeding technology.

The power of integrating speed breeding with genomic techniques

The Speed Breeding tool itself can be powerful because often one of the limitations in plant breeding is the time it takes to grow a generation. With this tool we can achieve breeding goals faster. But the real power of any breeding tool can be seen when you start to integrate it with other techniques into a breeding program.

Recently, we have started to work with industry partners to integrate Speed Breeding systems with genomic selection breeding strategies. This provided the combined effect of growing plant generations without having to test these plants in the field for traits that are expansive and laborious to measure.

We’re very excited about the opportunities in combining these tools to help speed up the development of more productive and robust crops for the future.

Opportunities for producing better crop varieties

Speed Breeding offers the opportunity to breed for environments that are going to be exposed to more variable climatic events such as droughts. Last year we had one of the worst droughts ever seen in Australia: our farmers suffered a great deal in terms of growing their wheat crops. When speaking to the farmers, it is clear that climate change is happening now.

We need to respond by producing better crop varieties. This means deployment of adaptive traits, such as improved water-use efficiency. For example, that might mean deeper roots so the crop can access stored soil moisture. But these kinds of traits take time – many breeding cycles – to pyramid and bring together.

The key to the delivery of more robust and yield stable crops is through accelerating the breeding process and increasing efficiency. At the University of Queensland we’re working to develop the next generation systems for predictive-based breeding. It has been a big challenge applying predictive-based breeding approaches and simultaneously bringing together many traits very quickly, but I’m passionate about developing this technology.

Increasing efficiency to overcome cost barriers

For many breeding programs, one of the main challenges is still the cost of genotyping. When integrating and approaching genomic selection with speed breeding, there is the possibility of doing two or three breeding cycles in just one year. If a lab is genotyping selection candidates two or three times a year and working with large population sizes, then cost is a challenge.

We can get around this by simulating the numbers and working out the most cost-effective breeding strategy and incorporating these technologies. Nevertheless, how much the genotyping technology can be exploited at this point in time still makes cost a significant factor. However, prices are coming down and the big companies breeding crops mostly do this in house now. We can envisage that cost of genotyping will not be a barrier in the future.

There’s also a bit of a divide between the commercial and public sector breeding worlds because only certain crops are profitable to breed in some regions of the world. Many other crops that we do grow and are food sources in many developing countries are not currently profitable. A lot of people in the public sector are only just learning what the commercial world is doing and how ahead they are with some of these technologies.

Global collaboration for low-cost options

I recently enjoyed a successful collaboration with the John Innes Centre, UK,  publishing speed breeding protocols and developing the technology. They have been a real powerhouse collaborator and took it to a whole new level. This project was needed to document exactly how the technology was maintaining plant health and developing the technology in terms of cost reduction.

It was great teaming up with them because when you team up with people around the world, you can give your research a greater platform and exposure. It was a fantastic experience, which is the way science should be; collaborative and open, having an impact around the world, whilst also being fun!

I’m now working with ICRISAT in India. We’re building speed breeding facilities there to help fast track their breeding efforts for many crops that are important in Asia and Africa. Speed breeding systems are also being built in other CG cities like CIMMYT in Mexico, who are developing important crops for the same regions. Also, one of my PhD students is based in Ethiopia. As part of his project, we’re planning to set up a small speed breeding capacity there.

This technology is not overly difficult to implement with the right facilities. It comes down to controlling photo-period, temperature, and giving the plants the conditions that they need to grow fast. Traditionally, facilities like this have been expensive because of electricity costs. But we are looking at low-cost options for developing countries or resource-poor regions, thinking outside the box to make these technologies accessible and affordable.

Removing the bottlenecks of genome editing

I see tremendous potential to combine speed breeding with genome editing. This could remove the bottlenecks of genome editing, taking it out of the lab and doing it directly in the speed breeding process. This would mean editing thousands of plants simultaneously at a scale where it becomes transformed from a biotechnology into a breeding technology.

With predictive-based breeding, we could be breeding six generations per year for regions around the world. That would be a game-changer in terms of crop production.


Lee Hickey is Senior Research Fellow at The University of Queensland, Australia. He will be presenting on his research at the upcoming 7th Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress: Europe.


See what else is on the 7th Plant Genomics & Gene Editing Congress: Europe agenda by clicking here. Alongside other current topics, CRISPR/Cas9 case studies and the very best strategies for plant genome engineering will be presented by industry leaders, experts, and pioneering academics at the forefront of plant research.


Further Reading

Watson A, Ghosh S, Williams M, Cuddy WS, Simmonds J, Rey MD, Hatta MAM, Hinchliffe A, Steed A, Reynolds D, Adamski N, Breakspear A, Korolev A, Rayner T, Dixon LE, Riaz A, Martin W, Ryan M, Edwards D, Batley J, Raman H, Carter J, Rogers C, Domoney C, Moore G, Harwood W, Nicholson P, Dieters MJ, DeLacy IH, Zhou J, Uauy C, Boden SA, Park RF, Wulff BBH, Hickey LT (2018) Speed breeding is a powerful tool to accelerate crop research and breeding. Nature Plants (4) 23–29 Access:

Ghosh S, Watson A, Gonzalez-Navarro OE, Ramirez-Gonzalez RH, Yanes L, Mendoza-Suárez M, Simmonds J, Wells R, Rayner T, Green P, Hafeez A, Hayta S, Melton RE, Steed A, Sarkar A, Carter J, Perkins L, Lord J, Tester M, Osbourn A, Moscou MJ, Nicholson P, Harwood W, Martin C, Domoney C, Uauy C, Hazard B, Wulff BBH, Hickey LT (2018) Speed breeding in growth chambers and glasshouses for crop breeding and model plant research. Nature Protocols 13:2944–2963 Access:


One Response to “Integrating breeding technologies to supercharge future crops”

  1. Joseph Joachim

    Very interesting and a game changer technology for crop improvement.
    Waiting to learn more from the team UQ


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