Texas A&M Biologist, Former Student Develops a Longer, Stronger Cotton Fiber

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas – An international collaboration with strong Aggie ties has figured out how to make a longer cotton fiber – information that a Texas A&M University biologist believes could potentially have a multi-billion-dollar impact on the global cotton industry and help cotton farmers fend off increasing competition from synthetic fibers.

The research, funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of International Research Programs, is published in the most recent edition of the journal Nature Communications.

"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 and senior author of the paper that was led by a former Texas A&M graduate student now in Uzbekistan. "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, according to the USDA. 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 of barbadense cotton," Pepper said. "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.

Pepper, a plant biologist at Texas A&M since 1995, acknowledges that the cotton plants developed in the project technically are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a controversial subject. But he makes a key distinction: A major criticism of GMOs, Pepper notes, focuses on cases where genes from other species -- even bacterial ones – have been added to an organism to achieve a desired trait. For instance, the agricultural giant Monsanto adds a gene to cotton that makes it resistant to Roundup® and then sells both the seeds and the weed killer to farmers.

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