Pakistan’s new speed breeding facility sows the seeds of future wheat

30 JUNE 2022

To fast-track the development of more productive and climate-resilient wheat varieties, Pakistani scientists have established a new speed-breeding facility at the National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC), Islamabad.

Key points

    • NARC scientists have established a glasshouse for speed breeding to develop climate-resilient high-yielding wheat cultivars.
    • Wheat populations are rapidly being advanced using the new facility, with 6 generations/year compared with 2 generations/year in the field.
    • The speed-breeding facility is being used by national and provincial research institutes.

According to UN assessments, the global population will reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Also, in recent years, Pakistani farmers have experienced high rainfall that was coupled with high disease pressure caused by rust. This year, the farmers have experienced widespread yield losses due to a heatwave.

Climate change is becoming more and more challenging every day. This is an alarming situation, and we certainly need to exploit new techniques and traits to improve the resilience of our future crops.

To meet the growing demand for food and mitigate the effects of global climate change on agriculture, Pakistani crop researchers are using new technologies to boost crop yields and enhance national food security. A major first step in implementing cutting-edge technologies involves a collaboration between Pakistani and Australian scientists.

In this collaboration, senior scientist Dr Zahid Mahmood from the Wheat Programme at NARC, visited the lab of Professor Lee Hickey within the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia in 2018. His visit was made possible through an International Research Support Initiative Programme of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan. His visit enabled collaborative research between Pakistan and Australia, which focused on the discovery of new genetics for resistance to stripe rust – a major foliar disease of wheat in both Pakistan and Australia.

Producing an improved crop variety requires researchers to grow plants over many generations; speed breeding accelerates this by increasing the number of generations that researchers can grow each year. During his visit, Dr. Zahid Mahmood worked under the supervision of Professor Hickey and gained hands-on experience using the speed breeding facility at UQ, which uses optimal light and temperature conditions to accelerate the advance of generations for a range of crops. Dr. Zahid used the facility to accelerate crossing of resistant wheat plants as part of his rust research. The experience motivated him to establish a similar facility in his home country.

“Pakistan is now growing up to six generations of wheat per year instead of just one or two in the field,” said Dr Zahid Mahmood

The newly constructed speed breeding facility at the National Agricultural Research Centre, Islamabad, Pakistan.

Pakistan’s first speed-breeding facility was constructed as part of the project “Productivity Enhancement of Wheat” funded by the Public Sector Development Programme in Pakistan. The project was made possible under the guidance and support of Deputy Director General, National Agricultural Research Centre Dr. Imtiaz Hussain and the Chairman, Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, Dr. Ghulam Muhammad Ali. While the first facility was designed for wheat improvement, efforts are underway to adapt the technology to a range of pulse crops.

“Our research aims to identify key genes for disease resistance, drought tolerance, and yield potential. Speed breeding technology can help us deliver benefits to farmers faster”.

In July 2022, Associate Professor Lee Hickey will deliver a week-long speed breeding training course to Pakistani researchers, which is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. The training modules will encompass the basics of speed breeding and a range of applications for the tool, including rapid trait introgression and stacking, as well as its integration with leading-edge technologies such as genomic selection. The training course will build capacity among scientists in Islamabad who wish to use the technology to accelerate their crop research and breeding programs.

Dr Zahid Mahmood
Dr Zahid Mahmood inspecting wheat crosses in the speed breeding facility.
Wheat grown in speed breeding facility in Pakistan
Wheat populations growing in the Pakistani speed breeding facility, where LED lights and precise environmental conditions allow researchers to rapidly breed improved varieties.