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Speed breeding is a powerful tool to accelerate crop research and breeding


The growing human population and a changing environment have raised significant concern for global food security, with the current improvement rate of several important crops inadequate to meet future demand1. This slow improvement rate is attributed partly to the long generation times of crop plants. Here, we present a method called ‘speed breeding’, which greatly shortens generation time and accelerates breeding and research programmes. Speed breeding can be used to achieve up to 6 generations per year for spring wheat (Triticum aestivum), durum wheat (T. durum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), chickpea (Cicer arietinum) and pea (Pisum sativum), and 4 generations for canola (Brassica napus), instead of 2–3 under normal glasshouse conditions. We demonstrate that speed breeding in fully enclosed, controlled-environment growth chambers can accelerate plant development for research purposes, including phenotyping of adult plant traits, mutant studies and transformation. The use of supplemental lighting in a glasshouse environment allows rapid generation cycling through single seed descent (SSD) and potential for adaptation to larger-scale crop improvement programs. Cost saving through light-emitting diode (LED) supplemental lighting is also outlined. We envisage great potential for integrating speed breeding with other modern crop breeding technologies, including high-throughput genotyping, genome editing and genomic selection, accelerating the rate of crop improvement.

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Fig. 1: Speed breeding accelerates generation time of major crop plants for research and breeding.
Fig. 2: Accelerated plant growth and development under speed breeding (left) compared to control conditions (right).
Fig. 3: Adult plant phenotypes in wheat and barley under speed breeding conditions.

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The authors wish to acknowledge the support of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, UK, the Two Blades Foundation, USA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK, and the International Wheat Yield Partnership, grant number IWYP76. S.G. was supported by a Monsanto Beachell-Borlaug International Scholarship. A.W. was supported by an Australian Post-Graduate Award and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Industry Top-Up Scholarship, project code GRS11008. The PBI facilities used in this project were funded with assistance from GRDC, project code US00053. H.R. also received funding by GRDC, project code DAN00208. J.B., D.E. and H.R. received funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC), project codes LP130100925 (J.B., D.E. and H.R.) and LP130100061 (D.E. and J.B.). M.A.M.H. was supported by a fellowship from Universiti Putra Malaysia, Malaysia. The authors also give thanks to the ARC for an Early Career Discovery Research Award, project code DE170101296, to L.T.H. We are grateful to the JIC, UQ and PBI horticultural staff for plant husbandry, M. Qiu (WWAI) for pod anatomy photography, A. Davis (JIC) for photography and J. Brown (JIC) for helpful discussions.

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Authors and Affiliations



A.W. and S.G. performed the experiments for studying two generations of wheat and barley under Speed breeding I and II, managed and oversaw the other experiments and wrote the manuscript. A.W. performed experiments studying growth of canola and chickpea under Speed breeding II. Speed breeding I: N.M.A. grew and evaluated the phenotype of the barley eceriferum mutants; S.A.B. provided advice for growth conditions; J.S. made the crosses and some germination tests; M.-D.R. conducted chromosome association studies during meiosis in wheat; M.A.M.H. studied development of transgenic barley lines; A.H. and W.H. contributed to design and execution of barley transformation tests; A.S. performed the inoculation and phenotyping for wheat Fusarium headblight infections; L.E.D. and S.A.B. selected and grew varieties involved in the flowering time phenotype; A.K., A.B. and C.R. performed all testing and measuring for Medicago; T.R. and C.D. performed the same for rapid cycling pea; D.R. and J.Z. filmed plant growth, created timelapse videos and performed growth phenotypic analysis; J.C. performed the energy calculations and provided some necessary data for such; C.U., G.M. and P.N. contributed experiment design, variety choice and phenotypes. Speed breeding II: A.R., D.E. and J.B. designed and conducted the initial pilot experiments on canola under speed breeding; H.R. contributed to the design and phenotyping of canola pod shatter resistance; M.R. and W.M. provided the chickpea varieties suitable for evaluation under speed breeding; M.J.D. and I.H.D. first came up with the idea of speed breeding and developed the initial framework for the protocol at UQ, Brisbane. A.R. and L.T.H. designed and conducted initial pilot experiments investigating harvest of immature wheat seed. Speed breeding III: M.J.W., W.S.C. and R.F.P. were involved in building, testing and implementing the cheaper, full LED version of speed breeding in closed environments. B.B.H.W. and L.T.H. contributed to the idea of conducting and summarizing these experiments in the manuscript, and contributed in terms of intellectual input for the experiments. All authors were involved in the writing of the manuscript and providing corrections and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Brande B. H. Wulff or Lee T. Hickey.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1–14, Supplementary Tables 1–41, Supplementary References

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Supplementary Video 1

Timelapse video recording comparing plant growth under speed breeding condition I and glasshouse conditions in United Kingdom summertime without any supplementary light. Video depicts three replicates of Triticum aestivum cv. Paragon sown and recorded under each treatment, with two replicates removed after stem extension stage was reached in each condition. Recordings were made using the CropQuant workstation developed by Ji Zhou and colleagues at the John Innes Centre [Supplementary Reference 4]. Germinated seedlings of Paragon were sown on 17 March 2017. Growth curves are illustrated in Supplementary Fig. 10.

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Watson, A., Ghosh, S., Williams, M.J. et al. Speed breeding is a powerful tool to accelerate crop research and breeding. Nature Plants 4, 23–29 (2018).

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