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Crop Improvement and Speed breeding

10 April 2020
Type Media Article

The Crop Science department in Teagasc Oak Park is focused on developing cost effective cropping systems to support the profitability and environmental sustainability of Irish tillage farmers.


Conventional and novel breeding techniques are continuously in use to develop resilient crops to climate change and diseases. However, these techniques are time consuming as it typically takes 10-13 years to generate an elite commercial variety. One of the main limitations is the fact that for example, in the case of wheat and barley it can take up to 6 months to complete their seed-to-seed life cycle when grown under standard 16 hours light period. Thus, finding strategies to accelerate this process becomes a priority.

Speed breeding

A new technique initially inspired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration  (NASA) to grow plants in space, has now being deployed to drastically shorten the life-cycle of different crops. Speed breeding utilises enhanced light periods of up to 22 hours using LED lights in glasshouses which dramatically accelerates the life span of different crops. At Teagasc, we have changed the lighting in our contained glasshouse facility to LED lights which allows us to rapidly breed and screen crops like wheat and barley for traits like disease resistance. Through speed breeding, we can now achieve up to 6 generations of wheat and barley in a year, while only 2-3 generations were achievable in normal glasshouse conditions (16 hours light period).  This helps fast-track the development of climate-resilient and disease-resistant crops.

Field trials

Wheat and barley lines developed through our research programme under speed breeding conditions are currently being tested in the field for their performance in a natural environment. We are also involved in testing breeding material provided by international research organisations and breeding companies for disease resistance under Irish agronomic conditions. Large field trials are carried out in field of Oak Park for screening of cereal breeding material for disease resistance and other economically important traits. For example, this year alone we have ~ 2000 different wheat lines sown to score for their capability against Septoria resistance for both public and commercial entities.

Moving forward

Much of the work being done to maintain crop yield and profitability in a changing climate while improving disease resistance relies widely on exploiting genetic diversity that exist in cultivated crops and their wild relatives. Techniques like speed breeding can fast-track research and development of resilient crops, which in turn will benefit Irish tillage farmers. It certainly is an exciting time for researchers addressing and promoting sustainable agriculture, as we continue to utilize novel breeding techniques to help us find solutions to current and predicted challenges.