New Cotton Being Created In Texas
November 10, 2012

Researchers Working To Genetically Strengthen Cotton Crops

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports — Your Universe Online

Experts at Texas A&M University AgriLife Research Department are attempting to improve production of the state's leading cash crop by infusing new genes and genetic combinations into cotton, the university has announced.

According to a statement, Dr. David Stelly, an AgriLife Research cotton geneticist in College Station, and colleagues are attempting to alter the DNA of the fiber plants in the genetics and breeding arenas in order to help adapt to the many challenges that such programs face.

"Contemporary crops such as Texas cotton are like finely tuned racing machines -- they need high quality parts to perform optimally," Dr. Stelly said in the statement. "And they constantly need new ones to replace ones that are no longer functional, as well as those that are still effective but no longer at the cutting edge of competition."

However, transferring genes from a cultivated crop into a wild species is like "swimming upstream" because scientists have to overcome a series of "biological and genetic barriers," he admits.

He says he and research assistant Dwaine Raska have been transferring genes through a breeding process known as "chromosome substitution," in which they target one pair of cotton chromosomes at a time and replace it with chromosomes from a wild species.

On average, each substitution sees the replacement of approximately 2,000 cotton genes, he said.

"Having already developed chromosome substitution lines for many chromosomes from three donor species, Stelly is working in collaboration with a former graduate student, Dr. Sukumar Saha, now with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service unit at Mississippi State University, and his associates, to document their effects on cotton plant and fiber improvement," the university said.

Dr. Stelly said successful cotton production in this day and age, both in Texas and in other parts of the world, requires that cotton genes have superior genetic makeup, as well as cutting-edge technology, skilled growers, a strong infrastructure and a little bit of luck. He added that to make significant advances in the industry, cotton breeders must be able to find the best materials and figure out how to best mix them with native genes.

"Fortunately, nature provides a plethora of genetic variation," Stelly said. "It's up to us to find it, move it into agronomically useful types, and to figure out how to use it wisely. Whether mechanical or genetic, making one change often requires that others be made to achieve superiority."

"We have excellent genetic types of cotton and excellent cotton breeders, but we need 'new blood' or new cotton genes, to create lots of new genetic combinations, of which a few are likely to yield significant improvements," he added. "Industrial technologies and competition from synthetic petroleum-based fibers demand significant modifications and enhancements to cotton fiber physical and chemical properties, especially those that affect dying and high-speed processing."

The state of Texas produces approximately 25% of the country's cotton crop, according to the university. Stelly hopes genetic modifications will be able to help prevent those crops from being harmed by diseases, pests, climate, lack of water, and deficiencies in salt or other nutrients -- and it could wind up having an even greater impact.

"The resulting advances will enable the baseline performances of cotton to be elevated, and could lead to unforeseen revolutionary advances," he said, adding his research team is "actively seeking partners to help breed derived types that can help the research community pinpoint single-gene and multi-gene effects in manners complementary to other means of genetic analysis."

"My expectation is that with the aid of marker-based selection, the cotton breeding community will be able to use these new kinds of wild germplasm resources far, far more effectively than in the past," Dr. Stelly added. "It just keeps getting more and more exciting."