FAST PLANTS: UQ researcher Dr Lee Hickey in a speed breeding facility designed to produce new plant varieties faster than conventional technology. The technique works be finding the ideal conditions for the crop to mature as fast as possible.
FAST PLANTS: UQ researcher Dr Lee Hickey in a speed breeding facility designed to produce new plant varieties faster than conventional technology. The technique works be finding the ideal conditions for the crop to mature as fast as possible. Contributed

Technology speeds up research vital for feeding the planet

SPEED is of the essence.

For University of Queensland researcher Dr Lee Hickey, that statement couldn't be more true - but it's not fast cars he's into, but breeding plants.

Dr Hickey leads a research team at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation focusing on plant breeding and genetics research.

Dr Hickey and his team have played a key role in applying technology that enables up to six generations of a plant to be breed in a year - speeding up the breeding of new varieties.

Present technology means it can take up to 20 years to develop a new variety for farmers, and this new "speed breeding” would significantly reduce this time.

The technique works by finding the ideal conditions for the crop to mature as fast as possible.

"The speed breeding technology itself is carried out in a high-tech glass house facility, fitted out with the latest LED lighting technology - it's all about optimising the environmental conditions to promote early flowering and rapid generations,” Dr Hickey said.

His team has been mainly focussing on cereal crops like wheat and barley, but he said the technology could be adapted to any crop.

"We can speed breed any crop, it's just a matter of working out what the right environmental conditions are to achieve that rapid generation advance,” he said.

With the world's population set to reach 11 billion by 2050, and climate change affecting growers around the world, Dr Hickey said the new technology would be vital for plant breeders.

"Plant breeders and scientists around the world are working on these traits to better equip our crops in the face of climate change,” he said.

"But the real problem comes back to the fact that it just takes so long to assemble all those traits in the one package for a variety that's needed for farmers to grow, and so that's where the speed breeding technology comes in.”

Dr Hickey said the technology could easily be integrated with other tools such as genomics and gene-editing to help produce crop varieties that will be needed to produce the 60 to 80 per cent more food required by 2050.

UQ researcher Dr Lee Hickey in a speed breeding facility designed to produce new plant varieties faster than convetional technology.
UQ researcher Dr Lee Hickey in a speed breeding facility designed to produce new plant varieties faster than convetional technology. Contributed

Lab work breeds results

DR LEE Hickey's research into "speed breeding” technology has been recognised with one of Australia's top awards.

Dr Hickey was presented with the ICM Agrifood Award at a gala event in Sydney last week, organised by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

Academy president Professor Hugh Bradlow congratulated all the award recipients.

"The ICM Agrifood Awards recognise early-career scientists or technologists who have demonstrated excellence, innovation and impact in relation to food and agriculture in Australia,” Prof Bradlow said.

"The nation's future prosperity depends on embracing new technology to address critical national challenges.

"More than ever we need knowledge creation, technology and innovation that can be harnessed to drive commercialisation and economic and social benefit.”

He said Dr Hickey and fellow award winner DrLydia Ong from the University of Melbourne had both made tremendous contributions.

Dr Hickey said he was honoured by the award.

"It's a really prestigious award. We don't do science for awards, but it's nice to be recognised and it's really good,” he said.

"I especially thank my colleagues and collaborators around the world for contributing to the speed breeding innovation and supporting my career.

"It's been an effort by many people to pull all this together.”


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