Cotton production is a global industry. Grown by approximately 80 countries, the crop is primarily harvested for fiber to make a variety of consumer products. However, the cotton seed itself, of which we produce 47 million metric tons annually, is a potential food resource for nutrient-deficient people all around the world, as it contains high amounts of oil and high-quality protein. Unfortunately, cotton seed can’t be consumed by most mammals because it contains a toxic chemical called gossypol, a terpenoid the plant produces as a natural insecticide.
Scientists have been working for decades to produce low- or no-gossypol cotton, but depriving the crop of this organic chemical made it vulnerable to pest attack. As a result, no edible cotton variety has ever been commercialized. But a team led by geneticist Keerti Rathore at Texas A&M University appears to have finally solved the gossypol dilemma. Using a gene-silencing technology called RNA interference, the researchers bred genetically engineered plants that produce the natural insecticide but yield non-toxic seeds.
The plants have been approved for production by the USDA and the FDA, and the technology may now be used to produce new cotton lines that generate massive amounts of high-protein seed for human food and animal feed. This innovation stands to benefit farmers, the environment and, most importantly, hungry people struggling to lift themselves out of poverty.
Keerti Rathore is a professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M University. He specializes in the genetic improvement cotton, tomato, rice and sorghum. Visit his website.
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