Sometimes, forward-thinking research requires a quick peek to the past.
In the case of Dick Auld, a retired professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources (CASNR), his desire to find the next advancement in cotton production came from reading about a practice of the Hopi Indian tribe from more than 100 years ago.
Using a process called mutagenesis, where genetic information of an organism is changed and results in a mutated organism, Auld has developed a gene which, when inserted into cotton seed, can result in a seed that has fewer linters – the short fibers that cling to cotton seeds after ginning – and where the fibers are barely attached to the seed.
The breakthrough, named Naked-Tufted Seed Coat Mutants, could lead to an easier and more efficient ginning process, making the spinning processes used to create textiles easier, as well as an increase in fibers that are used in the production of items like computer screens.
“The fibers are barely attached to the seed,” Auld said. “The fibers that are attached are a little more firm and are a quarter- to a half-inch long. But we wanted enough of those fibers to hold the seed into the harvest procedure and clear into ginning, then we wanted to be able to pull the seed off the seed lint quickly and efficiently, and it turns out we did that. We can gin it faster and use less energy in pulling the fibers off the seed.”
Eric Hequet, the chairman of Plant and Soil Science and co-principal investigator on the project – with Auld and Efrem Bechere with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service Crop Genetics Research Unit in Stoneville, Mississippi – said the discovery could make textile manufacturing more economically feasible to help the U.S. regain a foothold in an industry that has outsourced to Asia and China.
“If we have a lower attachment from the seed, which we have from this mutant, you break fewer fibers, and you have better length distribution,” Hequet said. “Therefore, potentially, we could adapt this cotton to new technologies that can be completely automated, which means we could, in theory, bring textile manufacturing to the U.S. It’s not for tomorrow – it’s a long-term project – but it is what we want to achieve at some point in the future.
“With just regular breeding, you can improve fiber properties. But we think this additional trait can really make a difference.”
Back to the future
The impetus for this research began roughly 10 years ago as Auld and his then-graduate students discussed cotton production vulnerabilities, which led to a focus on seed planting and the factors that affected establishment of the crop.
Auld also had read an article about a group of botanists who had traveled to a Hopi Indian reservation in the early 1900s to examine what they used for their cotton varieties. Those botanists discovered there were very few linters, or fuzz, on the cotton seeds, which not only made it easier to gin the cotton but also to clean the seeds for future planting.
But going back and trying to use the Hopi varieties, which Auld said are 400-500 years old, would result in the loss of yield advantage. That’s when the processes of mutagenesis came into play. Auld and his fellow researchers introgessed a variety of different genes into existing cotton seed, then planted those seeds to determine the effects.
The cotton that resulted from these mutant seeds was examined agronomically, for fiber quality, for oil yield and for the energy needed to process the seed. The result is Naked-Tufted Coat Mutants that produce less fuzz and more consistent fiber quality.
“You build a crop incrementally,” Auld said. “Incrementally, this is going to make stand establishment easier. Incrementally, it’s going to make harvesting easier. It’s going to make ginning easier. It’s going to make oil processing easier. One of the most dangerous steps we go through is acid de-linting of the seed, and this will make that process, maybe, non-existent.”
Hequet also came across this type of cotton seed, but in a completely different way.
Working as a cotton breeder in Africa about 30 years ago, some of Hequet’s colleagues in Cameroon released a variety of cotton seed that had fewer linters. Once the seed variety got into production and was used by farmers, and subsequently processed by ginners, they received tremendous feedback that the seed was ginned much easier and more efficiently.
When Auld developed his mutant seed about a decade ago, the two collaborated to determine the possible benefits in terms of energy savings.
Also about this same time, the textile manufacturing industry was shifting its production overseas due to cheaper labor costs, as well as the popularity of clothing made from yarns produced by ring spinning, the most popular method used by manufacturers. But it is a slow and expensive process.
“Today, about 3.5 million bales of cotton are consumed in the U.S., and the rest is exported,” Hequet said. “So, about 80 percent of our production is exported. But, even in Asia, labor costs are increasing, so now people are saying that pretty soon, within 10 years, producing ring spinning, even in Asia, will be too expensive. So what is the next technology in the pot?”
That next technology, Hequet said, is Air Jet spinning, which allows yarn manufacturers to produce yarn at relatively high production rates regardless of yarn counts. But, Hequet said, this method is primarily used for manmade fibers. So the question becomes – can Air Jet be adapted for cotton?
The answer is yes, but only if a much more uniform fiber length distribution is developed. That means not breaking the fibers on the seeds when it is ginned, which requires those fibers to have a lower attachment to the seed.
Enter the Naked-Tufted Seed Coat Mutant.
“It’s pretty big because it’s a simple gene, so it would be relatively easy to bring into commercial varieties,” Hequet said. “Of course, we have to check quite a few things first to make sure that when we bring the gene in we don’t have any negative impacts on something else, which is always possible.”
While research of the mutant cotton seed will continue in order to understand all of its properties, the next step is to get the cotton seed into production, and that means bringing an industry partner on board to experiment with the seed.
“We’ve got to sell it to someone,” Auld said. “We don’t release cotton seed here at Texas Tech. So we’re looking at companies that grow or produce seed to try putting it in their varieties and see if they like it, and maybe buying the technology or leasing the technology.”
Auld said a patent for a different product was received about a year ago that changes the chemical composition of the oil in the seed, and that technology was purchased by longtime CASNR industry partner Bayer CropScience.
Hequet said this new mutant gene could result in quite a monetary windfall for the college and the university, which will help continue the research needed to fully understand the technology.
“It has a very big potential,” Hequet said.
Now that he’s retired, Auld has turned the research over to Hequet and Brendan Kelly, an assistant professor of cotton fiber phenomics in Plant and Soil Science, to continue to develop the technology.
“The work is half-done,” Auld said. “The patent just says you know something unique and are about to commercialize it. We’re trying to attract a cadre of trained scientists who have an interest and can see the full potential of this gene.”
Source : Texas Tech University