Scientists inspired by NASA have found a way to grow wheat at incredible speeds using intense lighting regimes. The method, called “speed breeding”, produces wheat that is not only healthier, but grows in half the time, meaning you could feed more people with less land. The rapid-growing technique also works on sunflowers, lentils, peanuts, amaranth, pepper, and radishes – and it could signal a major breakthrough for feeding the planet’s growing population.

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By 2050, the planet could host an additional two billion people, but the space for growing and raising food isn’t increasing. So scientists have been looking for ways to tackle the problem of feeding a large population with less space. Scientists at the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland and the John Innes Center took a look at technology developed years ago by NASA to grow crops in space. Building on this base, they developed their speed breeding technique.

Related: Urban Produce vertical farm grows 16 acres of food in just 1/8 acre of space

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The technique involves growing plants under LEDs with a continuous, specific wavelength to boost photosynthesis. Using this lighting regime, the researchers grew wheat, barley, and chickpeas in half the time of traditional plants – six generations in one year to the two or three that can traditionally be grown. That’s from “seed to seed” in just six weeks. And the plants are actually better quality than traditional plants. This is likely the first time scientists have grown crops this quickly while also improving quality.

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“In the glasshouse we currently use high pressure sodium vapor lamps and these are quite expensive in terms of the electricity demand,” study co-author and UQ Senior Research Fellow Lee Hickey told New Atlas. “In our paper we demonstrate that wheat and barley populations can be grown at a density of about 900 plants per square meter, thus in combination with LED light systems, this presents an exciting opportunity to scale up the operation for industry use.”

The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Plants.

Via New Atlas