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- PRODUCTION -

Can Cotton Breeders Predict
The Future?
  

By Brenda Carol

 
Talk to any plant breeder, and it quickly becomes very obvious that trying to steer the direction of a plant is a few parts science and about a million parts chance with a lot of perseverance mixed in for any possibility of success.

There are so many variables involved in the genetics, so many questions involved in the future of the industry and so many unknowns that it is impossible to chart a crystal clear course. The good news is there was progress in recent years despite the complicating factors that were incorporated into what was already complicated.

“Back in the days of the one-variety law in California, we thought things were relatively complicated,” says Hal Moser, cotton breeder with Bayer CropScience’s California-based CPCSD seed company in Bakersfield. “We were basically dealing with yield, quality and verticillium wilt. Now, we’ve got a lot more factors in the mix.”

Those factors include – but are not limited to – genetically engineered herbicide tolerance and/or resistance, built-in pest management genes and a whole new host of fiber quality characteristics on the horizon. In addition, the introduction of Pima and uplands added substantially to the cropping mix within California’s cotton industry.

“And not only are we dealing with all those factors, but all of a sudden we’ve got Fusarium Race 4 in the Valley,” Moser says. “Now, we have to make that a priority in our breeding program as well.”

In Search Of The Right Mix

The overall result is a complicated soup of genetic traits that plant breeders must sort through in order to come up with a menu of varieties from which the cotton producer can choose and realistically make a profit when he plants them. It’s not an easy task and one that is complicated even more by the fuzzy crystal ball that breeders must use to project into the future.

“We won’t even see the results of things we are talking about today until a decade from now,” says Moser. “You have to understand the markets and what they want out of the variety, and that means going well beyond the producer. It also includes the mills and the spinners and ultimately the consumers.

“We are now at the point where we can take genes from any living organism and introduce them into a cotton variety,” he adds. “As you can imagine, that greatly increases the potential selection.”

Advantage Of Transgenes

Many of the advances in modern day cotton breeding have come by incorporating transgenic traits into the plant. The process of incorporating a transgenic trait involves taking a segment of DNA containing a gene sequence, which was isolated from one organism, and introducing it into a different organism. This non-native segment of DNA may retain the ability to produce RNA or protein in the transgenic organism, or it may alter the normal function of the transgenic organism’s genetic code. The real trick is trying to predict the performance of a transgene, how it will react with conventional traits or even how conventional traits will react with each other.

“A good example of that is yield and quality,” Moser says. “You want both, but when you increase yield, quality tends to suffer. The same is true with a lot of other traits you’re trying to introduce into a variety. It’s like trying to chase all the squirrels up the same tree. Sometimes a couple of the squirrels get away.”

Rapid progress is being made, however, as breeding techniques become more and more sophisticated. The use of genetic markers to flag certain characteristics at the molecular level are speeding up the selection process and enabling breeders to advance much more rapidly.

Fiber Of The Future

Cotton fiber of the future may be dramatically different from what we now envision due largely to transgenic traits, according to Kater Hake, vice president of agricultural research with Cotton Incorporated.

“Cotton is an ideal crop for bio-products such as industrial oils, health supplements and industrial enzymes,” he says. “I think there are tremendous opportunities in that arena. We definitely want to go down the route of developing things that are food grade or food approved so that we don’t have issues from a regulatory standpoint.”

Much of the research currently on the horizon deals with improvements in cottonseed. With prices already fairly substantial for the byproduct, Hake sees improvements in the form of value-added traits as a win-win situation.

“The seed we get from growing cotton is basically a freebie for growing fiber,” he says. “With biotechnology we can add quite a bit of value to the seed.”

Removing gossypol from cottonseed is one of the most exciting areas now being researched extensively, according to Hake. That achievement could potentially open up markets for feed in fish, poultry and swine production.

While gossypol has been successfully removed from the plant, researchers are working on ways to take it out of the seed, but leave it in the rest of the plant. Boosting the quality of cottonseed oil could provide access to markets that are currently fulfilled by other plant oils such as soybeans.

Pursuing Lofty Targets

Although no one has a crystal ball that can accurately predict what the market will demand or prefer 10 to 15 years in the future, it’s a good bet that biotechnology will play an important role in getting cotton to that point.

“For the future, I think we need to pursue the long shots,” Hake says. “Our tools are getting better every day. I think we especially need to look for novel ways of improving profitability in seed.”

Today’s breeding programs are increasingly focused on adding value to the cotton plant in ways never before contemplated. John Palmer, western seed manager for Bayer’s CPCSD division, foresees a cotton fiber and a seed that will be dramatically different from what we know today.

“I think long range, the cotton plant will be of a nature yet unknown to us,” he says. “We’re already starting with a tremendous resource. What other plant out there already produces so many byproducts? Now, it’s just a matter of putting the research into it to extract the potential that is already inherent in the plant.”

Contact Brenda Carol at brenda@brendacarol.net or (209) 728-9226.


 

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