Stronger and longer: New cotton fiber developed

Posted Jan 20, 2014 by Tim Sandle
A research team have increased the length of cotton fiber by at least 5 millimeters, or 17 percent, compared to the control plants in their experiment. This is expected to lead to better and stronger quality cotton.
Cotton bolls ready for harvest
Cotton bolls ready for harvest
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The fiber is almost pure cellulose. Under natural conditions, the cotton bolls will tend to increase the dispersion of the seeds.
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. To seek improvements with cotton, the research team focused on the higher quality Gossypium barbadense plant.
The research involved looking at photoreceptors, contained in all plants, that function to pick up information about the environment. With cotton plants, the researchers were interested in a type of photoreceptor called a phytochrome.
Phytochromes regulate many plant traits, including the length of leaves and stems and flowering time. Using a genetic cross between a long-fiber plant and a short-fiber plant, researchers focused in on a region of the genome that sat directly on top of one the phytochrome genes. They then used a technique called RNA interference to “knock down” or interfere with expression of that gene. The initial results showed an improvement in both the strength and length of the cotton.
The researchers are hoping that their development will soon have a multi-billion-dollar impact on the global cotton industry and help cotton farmers fend off increasing competition from synthetic fibers.
The development took place at the Texas A&M University (and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of International Research Programs). The research has been published in the journal Nature Communications in a paper titled “Phytochrome RNAi enhances major fibre quality and agronomic traits of the cotton Gossypium hirsutum.”