Dr. Keerti Rathore, professor in the Texas A&M Soil and Crop Science Department, has spent the last 21 years trying to make cotton an even more valuable crop by improving the nutritional value of the seed.
Rathore offered a brief description of his research at a recent Cotton Incorporated conference, “Everything You’ve Heard About Cotton is Wrong,” in New York City.
He explains that gossypol, a toxic substance that persists throughout the cotton plant to protect it from pests, limits use as a feed option for livestock other than cattle. Cottonseed has been a staple for cattle for years, possible, Rathore says, because of the complexity of a cow’s digestive system. Gossypol is toxic to other livestock species.
His research has explored avenues to remove gossypol from cottonseed while leaving it in other parts of the plant to maintain natural immunity to some pests.
“Some 26 million tons of cotton fiber is produced worldwide,” Rathore says. “The cotton plant produces much more seed than it does fiber.”
And that seed could play a significant role in feeding a rapidly growing global population. “Making cottonseed a more viable protein option,” he says, “could improve nutrition for as many as 500 million to 600 million people.”
Cottonseed without gossypol may be fed to animals other than cattle—chickens and hogs, for instance.Cottonseed oil has been used in cooking for years. Rathore’s research may mean cottonseed may be a source of protein for human consumption.
He’s working with “gene silencing technology,” a function made possible by sequencing the cotton genome. By identifying the gene in cottonseed that controls gossypol, researchers can turn that specific gene off, eliminating the toxin just from the seed, but leaving it elsewhere in the plant.
“We hope to complete feed trials by mid-June and then submit the result to USDA for approval,” Rathore says. “I hope to have varieties in the hands of farmers in the United States and across the world soon to help reduce protein malnutrition.”
Jesse Daystar, assistant director for sustainability and commerce at Duke University, says the potential for improved nutrition from cottonseed will be a “big boon to cotton’s sustainability message. Sustainability is about people, not just the environment.”
Rathore says his work does include manipulating genes but does not include gene transfer from other species. “Still, it’s considered genetic engineering,” he says. He explains that Bt cotton takes a gene from bacteria and puts it into the cotton plant to kill “only certain kinds of insects. That’s ‘old fashioned GMO,’” he says.
Genome editing is more closely related to commercial plant breeding, he adds. “It allows us to do plant breeding in a more precise manner. Through genome sequencing, we know the function of specific genes and can target those genes to modify without using outside genetics.”
He adds that cotton genetics, including genetic engineering, may offer opportunities to reduce the need for synthetic dyes. “We may be able to insert a gene into cotton that will mean we need no dye.”
Daystar says genetically modified organisms offer opportunities to improve production efficiency. “We have to look at the numbers behind the claims [of negative effects of GMOs]. We have to consider the science.”