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Speed Breeding, a promising approach to crop breeding

Speed Breeding is a new and exciting approach to breeding originally inspired by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that promises to develop new crop varieties faster, offering hope for food security in the continent. Through Speed Breeding, African researchers are working to develop new crop varieties faster.

The technique involves growing plants under continuous light (20–22hours). This allows plants to photosynthesize for longer, resulting in faster growth. With this technique, four to six generations of wheat plants can be grown per year instead of two generations under normal growth conditions. The result is researchers develop new crop varieties quicker.

Researchers at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa–International Livestock Research Institute Hub, known as the BecA-ILRI Hub and the John Innes Centre, UK, are bringing the benefits of Speed Breeding to Africa. Scientists Peter Emmrich and Oluwaseyi Shorinola are applying Speed Breeding to grass pea and wheat breeding in Africa, demonstrating that the technique can be used for major and orphan crop breeding.

Breeding for improved wheat lines under Speed Breeding conditions at the BecA-ILRI Hub

Shorinola is developing new wheat lines that have seen increased grain size and protein content and that are resistant to major wheat diseases in East Africa. His research has already resulted in faster growth of wheat plants under Speed Breeding conditions in Africa.

‘Speed breeding is such a simple way of growing plants faster. Unlike many advanced technologies that do not easily translate to Africa, Speed Breeding can easily be adopted by African breeders to accelerate their work. There is no “magic” or complicated science behind it; we are simply using LED lights to extend the length of day for plants, and this makes plants grow faster’, remarks Shorinola.

Emmrich is working on eradicating the toxin produced in grass pea, making it safe to eat in East Africa. Speed Breeding is helping the researchers to breed the low-toxin trait developed at the John Innes Centre, UK, into high-yielding varieties that are adapted to East Africa.

Grass pea is great at surviving extreme weather conditions such as drought and flooding, so the researchers hope non-toxic varieties will contribute to maintaining food and nutritional security as climate change progresses, especially in Ethiopia, where grass pea is already widely consumed.

According to Emmrich: ‘The amount of power needed for the lights and temperature control makes this too expensive for farmers to use. Breeders, however, often have to put their plants through many generation cycles, and in this context Speed Breeding can save both time and money. That means improved varieties can be made available quicker.’

Recognizing the potential of Speed Breeding for accelerating crop improvement in Africa, the BecA-ILRI Hub is planning to expand its Speed Breeding capacity and to integrate it with other modern technologies like gene editing and genomic selection and to make it accessible to African researchers.

Cathrine Ziyomo, BecA-ILRI Hub’s Program lead, says that most of the crops that make significant contributions to Africa’s food security have a lengthy generation time and complex biology. She adds that Speed Breeding presents researchers and plant breeders with unique opportunities to fast track genetic improvements for important traits. 

‘We hope that by establishing a Speed Breeding platform in Africa, the Hub can simultaneously increase access to modern and innovative methods of crop improvement while increasing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of breeding for under-researched crops’, says Ziyomo.

Shorinola and Emmrich’s research is done in partnership with the John Innes Centre, with support from the Royal Society and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), UK.

Africa sits at the frontline of a changing climate system and is very vulnerable to climate change. Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa needs a boost to feed the 600 million people currently experiencing food insecurity, and the extra 1 billion people expected to live in the next 30 years on the continent. In this light, developing better yielding and more nutritious, climate-resilient crop varieties faster is a major priority for Africa’s researchers.

BecA-ILRI Hub partners with scientists in Ethiopia and Europe to help improve Tef production in Ethiopia

In a truly international collaboration, BecA-ILRI hub is partnering with a team of scientists from the John Innes Centre (JIC, UK), University of Bern (Unibe, Switzerland) and the Ethiopia Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR, Ethiopia) to use modern genomics tools to address some of the constraints to tef production.

The team, whose other members include Dr Kebebew Assefa, Dr Solomon Chaleyew, Dr Brande Wulff, Dr Kumar Guarav, Dr Dejene Girma and Dr Zerihun Zadele (Universität Bern), will be sequencing the entire genome of a representative collection of the 200 tef lines from Ethiopia. This will be the first time genome sequencing will be done at this scale in this primarily neglected crops.

In addition to this valuable genomic data, the team will extensively measure different aspects of tef’s growth in the field, allowing them to identify genes controlling different characteristics in tef including grain size and plant height.

Knowing these genes will enable Ethiopian researchers to mix-and-match different essential genes through breeding to develop tef varieties with bigger grain and studier stem.

“We are delighted to work alongside our partners at BecA-ILRI Hub, EIAR and Bern on this important crop. We hope that the use of genomic approaches and training will provide new tools for breeders to develop improved tef cultivars for farmers.”

Prof Cristobal Uauy, Project lead

Tef is an ancient crop grown in Ethiopia for more than 2000 years. It constitutes a large part of the diet of the 112 million people in Ethiopia as it is used to make Ethiopia’s main staple dish – injera, a flat fermented bread eaten daily in virtually every household.

Tef’s ability to grow under harsh environmental conditions and marginal soils makes it a fail-safe crop of choice by many subsistence farmers in Ethiopia.

Tef is also attracting a lot of attention beyond the border of Ethiopia. Over the last decade, tef popularity as a global “superfood” is growing in the western world mainly due to its high nutrient profile with high Fe, Ca, fibre, resistant starch and lysine content. Tef flour is gluten-free.

Although a vital food security crop and an increasingly popular crop, tef is particularly challenging to produce compared to many cereal crops. One big problem with tef production is the very tiny size of its seed small seed.

Tef seeds are (< 1 mm wide and 75 tef seeds weigh as much a single rice grain. The tiny seed size is, however, not the only problem tef farmers are grappling with. Tef plants also have very tiny, slender and weak stems which falls over (lodge) when the plants are ready for harvest causing massive seed losses.

The name tef is actually derived from the Amharic word for lost (“teffa”) bearing reference to the fact that the tiny seeds are lost during harvest.

The project is funded through a FLAIR collaboration grant award from the Royal Society UK to Prof Cristobal Uauy (JIC) and Dr Oluwaseyi Shorinola (BecA-ILRI Hub).

“This is a genuinely equitable north-south collaboration to improve a very important but largely neglected crop in Africa. Our collaboration will produce lasting and valuable genomics resource that Ethiopian researchers can use and re-use for a long time to improve any characteristic of interest in tef.”

Dr Oluwaseyi Shorinola, a co-lead on the project