Improving crops can be a laborious and expensive process, involving hundreds of crosses and selections made over multiple generations. Plant generation time is one of the biggest barriers to advances in crop and plant science. A new method called speed breeding can accelerate this process but can be expensive to implement. Now, a group of early-career researchers based in the UK has developed a way to make speed breeding accessible and cheaper to implement with GrowCab, a flat-packed growth chamber equipped with lighting, temperature and humidity controls. GrowCab is designed to work specifically for speed breeding efforts.
“Our team members come from India, Venezuela and Mexico — countries and systems where expensive equipment is something of a luxury and not always accessible,” said Sreya Ghosh, a 2018 BGRI Women in Triticum Early-Career awardee, and recent PhD graduate at the John Innes Centre, about the team’s motivation for developing the low-cost DIY speed breeding cabinet.
GrowCab members Oscar Gonzalez (Quadram Institute, UK), Luis Yanes (Earlham Institute, UK), Marcela Mendoza (Aarhus University, Denmark) and Ricardo Ramírez-González and Ghosh (John Innes Centre, UK) estimate it costs about $1000 USD to build the growth chamber. Their plans for the open-source, license-free project are available in a detailed step-by-step online manual .
Each part to build the cabinet is listed, along with places to source components. The entire circuit board schematic can be downloaded, along with the computational code required to run and customize the plant growth cycle.
The team is still improving the design, but their goal is to keep the cost of materials low so that low-resource institutions and labs can build and use it. The only cost for the user is the cost of materials and time to invest in learning how to put it together.
The innovative chamber makes speed breeding accessible in a small space. Speed breeding accelerates a plant’s development cycle without negatively impacting its overall physiology. Each crop variety has different requirements based on variables such as light, temperature and humidity. Using speed breeding, researchers can introduce rapid variations into breeding programs to help develop high-quality crops with improved yield and other desirable characteristics. Since high-tech plant growth rooms to implement speed breeding are expensive to rent and access limited, scaling down the size of the chamber, and/or using several small chambers in tandem, each with slightly different parameters, researchers can discover optimum crop parameters more quickly and less expensively.
Speed breeding protocols were published in Nature Protocols in November 2018, by teams of researchers that included Ghosh, Amy Watson (WIT 2016), Lee Hickey and Brande Wulff, among others.
The GrowCab group initially received a small amount of funding (£5000) from OpenPlant to invest in parts and sensors, and then spent many weekends outside of work putting it together. “Our research managers and group leaders were very supportive of us. They even suggested ideas and made sure we had the support to perform all the necessary safety checks to run them on-site for testing”, said Ghosh. The team has exhausted the OpenPlant grant and is looking for ways to fund further development of the design.
GrowCab: Award-winning Cabinet Design
Other organizations have recognized the potential of this low-cost, flat-packed, build-on-the-spot growth chamber.
First, the team secured a spot as a finalist at the 2019 BBSRC Innovator of the Year award in the category for “early career impact.” Then, in March 2020, the team won the 2019-20 TFF x Beta Space Colonization Challenge, an innovation prize that aims to incentivize change makers from around the world to think beyond the food systems on Earth and develop required innovations for sustainable living on other habitable worlds.
The team entered GrowCab in the competition as a flat-packed breeding and plant research tool whose design could be modified to generate precision-controlled environments and enable plant growth for a variety of cereal and legume staples which could be used in the sustainable colonization of space and Mars. The flat-pack and modular design allows for easy transport in small spaces. Set-up and tear-down is also environmentally friendly, because parts can be dissociated and recycled, according to Ghosh.
Recognizing that the chamber may be used in countries where the power supply and internet connections are erratic and power-cuts are frequent, the team is also working on maintaining stability, with perhaps a back-up power source. Other design challenges are the heating and humidity controls in environments where the ambient temperatures are much warmer than the UK. The team is looking for a skilled engineer with industrial design experience to join or contribute to their project.
As it is, the transparency of the open-source approach has invited the interest of skilled enthusiasts outside of plant research to offer suggestions, entirely out of good will. One person advised improvements to the design, and another to the code.
“The beauty of open source is that’s very community driven. When you share, you receive useful feedback,” said Gonzalez. The team hopes this same approach could be used across other technologies in plant science.
The GrowCab team welcomes suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Associate Director for Communications
Linda McCandless is a writer and editor who specializes in international agriculture and development, persuasive story-telling and strategic communications. She is a strong advocate for science communication training, and science-based journalism with a focus on diversity and empowering lesser-heard voices.