Technology used by NASA to grow crops in space is being adapted to work in greenhouses and scaled-down growth chambers back on Earth, which can help fast track genetic improvements in crops such as rapeseed oil, wheat and barley, reports Space Daily.

The method, known as speed breeding, has been improved by scientists at the UK’s John Innes Centre and Australia’s University of Queensland to breed disease resistant, climate resilient and nutritious crops to feed a growing world population.

"Speed breeding allows researchers to rabidly mobilise the genetic variation found in wild relatives of crops and introduce it into elite varieties that can be grown by farmers,” said wheat scientist Dr Brande Wulff at the John Innes Centre. “The EU ruling that heavily regulates gene editing means we are more reliant on speed breeding to grow sturdier, more resilient crops."

In July, the European Court of Justice ruled that crops improved with modern gene editing (GE) techniques must be classed as genetically modified organisms, a decision that has been condemned by leading plant scientists. The new GE technologies edit a plant’s existing genome, compared with old-school genetically modified organisms (GMOs) where foreign genetic material is inserted.

Dr Wulff believes speed breeding technology will become the norm in research institutes.

The technique uses enhanced LED lighting and 22 hour-day regimes to maximise the rate of photosynthesis. The method speeds up the rate of growth in the crop so six generations of wheat can be grown in a year compared to just two when using traditional methods.

The team at the John Innes Centre has also developed techniques such as cloning and gene discovery that could help with crop improvements, Space Daily said.