Video Shows How NASA-Inspired Crop Technology Could Improve Food on Earth

Space-inspired quinoa has arrived.

As NASA began probing the mysteries of growing crops in the harsh condition of space, scientists back on Earth started getting some big ideas. Watching these experiments unfold, they became inspired to create a spin-off technique that could solve problems that hit closer to home.

The technique in question, refined by a team of scientists from the John Innes Centre in the UK and the University of Queensland in Australia, is based on NASA’s original method used to grow plants in space. It involves several temperature-controlled chambers where plants are exposed to different types of LED lamps to provide an alternative to sunlight — a crucial ingredient for plant growth on Earth. Crop scientist Brande Wulff, Ph.D., and Sreya Ghosh, a postgraduate student at the John Innes Centre, are part of the team that adapted this idea to create a “speed breeding protocol,” which they tested earlier this year on spring wheat, barley, canola, chickpeas, pea plants, and quinoa.

This technique allows them to rapidly breed plants — they report that they can breed six generations of wheat per year, whereas typical greenhouse conditions yield only two. With more generations each year, scientists could focus their breeding efforts on plants with genes that might be more resistant to the rigors of a warming planet, including catastrophes like drought, bringing about hardier varieties in much less time than traditional breeding methods. On Friday, they published a sort of how-to guide to their process in a paper in Nature Protocols, as well as an accompanying video that they hope will make this process more accessible to other scientists.

speed breeding cabinet
A close up of the speed breeding cabinet.

“The basis of speed breeding is giving the plants a better quality light, a higher intensity light and a longer day length,” explains Wulff, one of the study’s lead authors. “When everyone at the institute heard about the success we had, they all wanted to do speed breeding.”

Plants undergoing “speed breeding” are exposed to 22 hours of light within a specific portion of the spectrum — specifically, light in the blue, red, and far-red range. They’re also exposed to two hours of darkness as short darkness periods were shown to improve plant health. In short, it’s a far longer day than they would typically be exposed to. But light isn’t the only factor that Wulff and his team amped up.

The plants are also kept in temperature-controlled glass greenhouses, where they’re exposed to certain types of sodium vapor lamps. To meet the demands of the institute, the team scaled up its process to encompass several large greenhouses, which are shown in detail in the video. But the paper also describes a way to perform this technique in a small “bench top growth cabinet.”

“It was important to us that we developed something that could be bought quickly and set up with minimum skill,” added Ghosh, the first author on the paper. “This scaled down cabinet means the technology is accessible and democratic. Researchers all over the world can set it up on their desk to get the benefits of speed breeding for their research programme.”

Media via John Innes Center/ Ruby O'Grady, Ruby O'Grady/John Innes Centre