Cotton may soon be used for more than just clothing.
Texas A&M researchers are turning cottonseed into a high-level protein that could feed millions of people a year.
Agricultural researchers at Texas A&M University have reduced a toxic compound in cottonseed to a level that's safe to eat.
"We have now reduced the gossypol in the seed by 98 percent so we brought it down to a level which is now considered safe by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)," Dr. Keerti Rathore, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station plant biotechnologist with Texas A&M said.
Rathore says the cottonseed also meets World Health Organization standards, and if it's approved the high-protein food would be available to 500 million people a year.
"Now the seed becomes a source of food and the amount of protein that is locked into cottonseed can be used to feed people who are malnourished and are short on protein," Rathore said.
The work was announced November 20 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Rathore has worked with a team of scientists from the Experiment Station, Texas A&M University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Southern Plains Research Center in College Station.
Researchers have only reduced the toxic compound out of the seed, but not in the rest of the plant where the compound serves as a defense against insects and disease.
The team used RNAi, or technology that can "silence" a gene.
This enabled them to target the gossypol gene only in the cottonseed but let the gene express itself in the rest of the plant.
"What we have done is use this technology to selectively inhibit a gene that codes for an enzyme that is involved in the gossypol biosynthetic pathway in the seed, " Rathore said.
Cotton fibers have been spun into fabric for more than 7,000 years.
For most of that time, products from the fuzzy seed that is extracted in the fiber process have been edible only for cattle.
They can tolerate gossypol only after digesting it through the four compartments of their stomachs.
"Very few people realize that for every pound of cotton fiber, the plant produces 1.6 pounds of seed," Rathore pointed out. "The world produces 44 million metric tons of cottonseed each year. Cottonseed typically contains about 22 percent protein, and it's a very high-quality protein."
In all, about 10 million metric tons of protein are contained in that amount of seed, he said.
Plants with the new trait developed by the team could make the plant more valuable both as a fiber and a food crop.
"One could utilize the cottonseed either directly as food if there is no gossypol or as feed for livestock," he said.
The researchers have been successful in maintaining the trait through three generations in lab work.
Now the project must now undergo extensive field and safety tests by federal agencies.
"It's going to take some time, but we've taken the most important step, that is showing that these tools actually work," Rathore said.
Researchers estimate it will take at least another decade for widespread commercial production.
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