Open source speed breeding cabinet makes rapid crop improvement affordable

The reason we can produce enough food for world’s population is largely due to improvement of the crops we rely on. For thousands of years, we’ve bred many crops to produce more food, more quickly, more reliably. It is these changes that have allowed us to yield the larger harvests we require and what enables us to increase food production for a rising global population. Unfortunately, this is not true for all crops.

The challenge is that improving crops is a slow and sometimes expensive process. This is because fundamentally, it relies on growing and ‘crossing’ (breeding together) suitable plants, then obtaining the self-seed of the progeny for successive generations of plants. Through this process we can breed for the qualities we want in plants, like larger grains, and breed out the less useful qualities, like pod-shatter.

The recent breakthrough of speed breeding technology allowed researchers to dramatically accelerate this breeding process by reducing plant generation time. This means we can now breed for desired traits in some crops in half the time or less. The problem is however that this technology is expensive, around £100,000 for a single state-of-the-art growth room, and many parts of the world that call for improved crops most urgently, need a more affordable option.

‘Everyone was talking about speed breeding,’ said Research Scientist Oscar Gonzalez, ‘and we said, let’s make something that is affordable to everyone.’

A team of early career researchers based at institutes across the Norwich Research Park and University of Oxford decided to take action. Together they won an OpenPlant grant that gave them the funding and some basic electronics to make a start. With just £5,000 to spend, they began to refine the breakthrough of speed breeding technology to unlock it for researchers to access from labs of any resource level.

Speed breeding relies on using specific wavelengths of light that are most suited for plant growth and keeping the plant in optimum growing conditions for a 22-hour day. Currently the set up is used in greenhouses or controlled environment chambers. Based on their own experiences, the team decided to see if they could replicate this set-up, but for a fraction of the cost.

‘We all come from countries and systems where having expensive equipment is something of a luxury which is great to have but not accessible, said PhD student Sreya Ghosh, ‘that’s where the speed breeding cabinet was born.’

Their first steps were to condense the technology into a conveniently-sized ‘cabinet’ – small enough to sit on a lab work bench but large enough to realistically support a researcher’s plant breeding experiments. Designing this prototype required a diverse range of skills ranging across plant science, design, electronic and software engineering.

Speed breeding cabinet at innovator of the year
Some of the team at the 2019 BBSRC Innovator of the Year award as finalists in the category for ‘early career impact’. Left to right; Marcela Mendoza-Suarez (Oxford University), Oscar Gonzalez-Navarro (Quadram Institute), Ricardo Ramirez-Gonzalez (John Innes Centre), Sreya Ghosh (John Innes Centre).

‘Luckily, each one of us has different skills that really complemented each other,’ said Oscar, ‘plus the main motivation of adding to open technology.’

But the build was not without it’s challenges. ‘Once you put plants in there, everything changes.’ said Sreya ‘The humidity, the way the environment works. We worked out a lot from just the internet and that inspired us even more to give back to the community, reinforcing our goal to make it open source.’

After months of work, the final result was tested and show that plants grown inside matched those grown in the speed breeding greenhouses. This meant the team could officially confirm that the prototype cabinet they had built was speed breeding enabled.

With this result, the team was able to publish their work along with the schematics to build the low cost speed breeding cabinet, alongside the other more traditional ways to set up speed breeding. The response was even bigger than they hoped.

‘The paper made the cover of Nature Protocols ,’ said Oscar ‘and remained the top protocol in there for weeks.’

At this time of writing, the protocol has an attention score on Altmetic of over 450, marking it as in the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by the site. It also remains the number 1 out of 1,973 other high ranking protocols in the same journal.

Researchers all around the world began to share this new accessible approach to speed breeding. The team were called for interviews across national television and this rapidly rising visibility started to achieve exactly what they originally set up to do.

‘Suddenly potential stakeholders were able to find us,’ said Sreya, ‘one researcher contacted us because the cost we could create these cabinets for was much less than he could find in industry.’

‘People would ask, do you have a company, are you selling this?’ said Oscar, ‘and we’d say no, it’s all open source, you can find all the parts from each supplier and instructions online.’

True to their word, the guide to build the speed breeding cabinet is completely free to access, with no licensing costs. Each part to build the cabinet is listed, along with places to source the components. The entire circuit board schematic can be downloaded online, along with the computational code required to run and customize the plant growth cycle.

This transparency of an open source approach has also invited the interest of skilled enthusiasts outside of plant research to offer suggestions, entirely out of goodwill.

‘We had someone advise improvements to the design, there was someone who went through improving all the code.’ said Oscar, ‘the beauty of opensource is that’s very community driven and when you share, you receive useful feedback.

Through these volunteer community suggestions and online sharing, the speed breeding cabinet has been further refined and it’s uptake encouraged across smaller plant science labs globally. This in itself marks a great achievement but the team haven’t quite finished here.

‘At the moment, the barrier to adoption would be for people who are not very confident building a circuit,’ said Sreya, ‘so we have workshop organised for the BGRI meeting to teach how to build one of these cabinets.’

The group aims to select research applicants from lower resourced institutions who have a demonstrated need for these technologies. By the end of the course, the trained individuals will be able to build their own speed breeding platforms for their crop improvement programs.

But that’s not the only purpose of this training.

‘We hope that these skills will also help them access other many other DIY lab technologies that are available online, ‘said Sreya, ‘we can use this training opportunity to break a barrier to other open source lab infrastructure.

For their work on the speed breeding cabinet, the group were recognised in the final of the BBSRC 2019 Innovator of the Year awards in the category of ‘early career impact.’ The competition is open to researchers across the country and the team made it to the final three in their group. Within the same 24 hours, they were invited to meet with local MP Sir Norman Lamb, chair of Science and Technology Select Committee.

‘It was surreal’, said Oscar, ‘people were particularly surprised that we did all this with just £5000 to build a prototype.’

On where they will take the technology next, the group have a number of ideas in mind. More training events are being arranged across African research institutes with particular attention focused to those working with orphan crops. Despite the group arranging all this alongside their research, they’re notably driven to share their open technology as widely as they can.

‘If you think about it science has always been about people and community and helping each other grow.’ said Sreya, ‘we picked speed breeding as an example but there are many items across the lab we could open up like this. We just chose this one to start with.’

speed breeding cabinet

The entire team behind the project is: Oscar Gonzalez-Navarro (Quadram Institute), Sreya Ghosh (John Innes Centre), Marcela Mendoza-Suarez (Oxford University), Ricardo Ramirez-Gonzalez (John Innes Centre), Luis Yanes (Earlham Institute).

The initial funding for the speed breeding cabinet prototype was funded by OpenPlant. Each of the researchers involved are funded separately for their own projects which are not directly linked to the speed breeding cabinet. Sreya Ghosh is funded by the Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars’ Program.