An international collaboration... has figured out how to make a longer cotton fiber... could potentially have a multi-billion-dollar impact on the global cotton industry and help cotton farmers fend off increasing competition from synthetic fibers...
"This technology allows improvement of fiber quality in upland cotton, which is widely grown everywhere," said Alan Pepper, an associate professor in the Texas A&M Department of Biology... "This will increase the competitiveness of natural cotton fibers versus synthetic fibers, which have been snagging an increasing amount of the market share every year."
The overwhelming majority of cotton harvested in the U.S. and worldwide is upland cotton, or Gossypium hirsutum, with more than 6.5 million acres planted in 2012 in Texas alone... A higher-end cotton called Gossypium barbadense is more desirable because of greater fiber length and strength but is late-maturing, low-yielding and more difficult to grow because it requires dry climates with significant irrigation and is less resistant to pathogens and pests.
"For a long time cotton breeders have been trying to develop upland cotton with the fiber qualities ofbarbadense cotton... Globally, everybody's trying to do it. Economically, it's a huge deal, because every millimeter you add to fiber length adds that much to the price of cotton when the farmer sells it." The researchers' method increased the length of the fiber by at least 5 millimeters, or 17 percent, compared to the control plants in their experiment...
The cotton plants developed in the project technically are genetically modified organisms (GMOs)... "What we're doing is a little different," Pepper said. "We're not actually adding in a gene from another species. Rather, we're knocking down the effect of one of the genes that's already in the plant... This was pure basic science, seeking to understand the biological function of a gene... And sure enough, the phytochrome 'knock-down' plants had all these phenotypic changes associated with it [phytochrome], and one of them was longer fiber."
The discovery was especially important to Ibrokhim Abdurakhmonov, the lead author of the study who received his master's degree in plant breeding from Texas A&M in 2001 and is now a professor in his native Uzbekistan. The landlocked agricultural nation that borders Afghanistan historically has relied heavily on cotton... Uzbekistan currently accounts for around 10 percent of world cotton fiber exports.
"Sustainability and biosecurity of cotton production is pivotal for the Uzbekistan economy because agriculture accounts for 24-to-28 percent of the country's gross domestic product... The increased value of longer and stronger lint, at 10 cents per pound, would be at least $100 per acre more income from the lint for each new cultivar using this technology. New markets for longer, finer, stronger and more uniform cotton lint fiber, as well as early maturity and increased yield potential could further increase estimated economic value. Our anticipation of possible improvement of resistance to abiotic stresses via phytochrome RNA interference further adds to its commercial potential." ...
Press release: http://www.science.tamu.edu/articles/1157/
Original article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms4062
Via Alexander J. Stein