Cotton breeders are using genetic insights to make this global crop more sustainable
Products derived from the cotton plant show up in many items that people use daily, including blue jeans, bedsheets, paper, candles and peanut butter. In the United States cotton is a US$7 billion annual crop grown in 17 states from Virginia to Southern California. Today, however, it’s at risk.
Cotton plants from fields in India, China and the U.S. – the world’s top three producers – all grow, flower and produce cotton fiber very similarly. That’s because they are genetically very similar.
This can be a good thing, since breeders select the best-performing plants and cross-breed them to produce better cotton every generation. If one variety produces the best-quality fiber that sells for the best price, growers will plant that type exclusively. But after many years of this cycle, cultivated cotton all starts to look the same: high-yielding and easy for farmers to harvest using machines, but wildly underprepared to fight disease, drought or insect-borne pathogens.
Breeding alone may not be enough to combat the low genetic diversity of the cultivated cotton genome, since breeding works with what exists, and what exists all looks the same. And genetic modification may not be a realistic option for creating cotton that is useful for farmers, because getting engineered crops approved is expensive and heavily regulated. My research focuses on possible solutions that lie at the intersection between these tools.