Much more coming in cotton transgenics

Transgenic cottons resistant to herbicides and insect damage have revolutionized cotton production.

The numeric/alphabet soup of varieties now available is nothing compared to what's coming, according to plant breeders who spoke recently at the Central Coast Cotton Conference.

“The technologies that we're talking about now, we won't even see for 10-15 years,” says Kater Hake, director of agricultural research for Cotton Incorporated. “We have to be incredibly visionary. Who would have thought back 10 years ago that alternative herbicide strategies would be critical? It wasn't that long ago that glyphosate was the solution. Now, we have a huge need for alternative herbicides.”

That vision includes a virtual crock-pot of traits that address everything from stress tolerance to enhanced seed characteristics. In the realm of stress tolerance, researchers are looking at obscure factors such as antioxidants, heat shock proteins, ion exchange, oxygen boosters, transcription factors and more.

“I think the biggest area of investment from the private sector right now is in the area of transcription factors,” Hake says. “These are the class of proteins that are responsible for the incredibly complex networks of controlling what individual cells do in neighboring cells. Transcription factors bind to the DNA and control how that DNA is read and recognized. It is a master regulatory sequence in plants.”

So far, research in the laboratory has been impressive, according to Hake, but field results have yet to produce any discernable results. However, he said it's only a matter of time before it does. Salt tolerance is another area receiving considerable attention in transgenic research.

“I think water is going to be more important than oil in the future,” Hake says. “The access to fresh water — that is where the real competition on a global basis is going to come from. Not only is it going to be important for consumption, but also to grow crops. That's where cotton has a tremendous opportunity in terms of salt tolerance. It can do things in a field that almost no other crop can do.”

Transgenic traits also have the potential to greatly alter and add value to the cottonseed as we know it today, according to Hake. “It's an ideal crop for bioproducts,” he says.

Bioproducts could be industrial oils, health supplements and industrial enzymes. Another area of ongoing research is the removal of gossypol from the seed, but leaving it in the rest of the plant. Much progress has been made in this area which could open up expanded feed markets in the future.

Another area where biotechnology will most certainly impact future cotton varieties is in the realm of fiber characteristics. Genes that regulate the fiber beyond length, strength and micronaire have already been studied extensively and have set the foundation for future advances in fiber improvement through biotechnology.

“There are three waves coming in biotechnology,” says Jane Dever, cotton breeding manager with Bayer Crop-Science. “We're already riding the first wave. We've been able to look at some of the genes that regulate the important fiber traits and have demonstrated that we can influence those.” The second wave in fiber improvement is figuring out how to stack more genes onto a single variety. The third wave could theoretically revolutionize the cotton products delivered to consumers.

“I'm most excited about the third wave,” Dever says. “This is where we try to address the performance gap between cotton and some of the fibers we compete with. We've refocused our genetic engineering efforts in fiber quality to look at extracting value from that fiber further downstream. In particular, researchers are looking at ways to change cotton lint to reduce the cost and fiber damage in dyeing and adding wrinkle resistance to a fabric.

“Not only are those treatments expensive, they're very harsh and reduce the strength of the fiber,” Dever says. “We do know that we can modify the function of the cotton fiber to accept dye more readily and to potentially affect a lot of the processing characteristics.”

Much of the third wave biotechnology breeding efforts will take place in California at Bayer's California Cotton Planting Seed Distributors (CPCSD) division based in Shafter, Calif., according to Dever.

Any way you slice it, biotechnology will most certainly transform the cottonseed and the cotton plant into something much different than what we recognize today. It will still be cotton. It will just be improved from the molecular level to the seed to the fiber, and those improvements are aimed at extracting additional value from all phases of the production, processing and marketing chains.