Texas A&M University AgriLife Research Department experts are aiming to improve cotton varieties by infusing new genes and genetic combinations into the crop.  

According to a statement, David Stelly, Ph.S., an AgriLife Research cotton geneticist in College Station, and colleagues are attempting to alter the DNA of the fiber plants in the genetics and breeding arenas in order to help adapt to the many challenges that such programs face.

“Contemporary crops such as Texas cotton are like finely tuned racing machines — they need high quality parts to perform optimally,” Stelly said in the statement. “And they constantly need new ones to replace ones that are no longer functional, as well as those that are still effective but no longer at the cutting edge of competition.”

Scientists face a significant challenge in transferring genes from a cultivated crop into a wild species. According to scientists, there are “biological and genetic barriers” that they will need to overcome to make the transfer successful.

Stelly and his research assistant Dwaine Raska have been transferring genes through a breeding program known as “chromosome substitution.” In this process, they target a pair of cotton chromosomes one at a time and replace it with chromosomes from a wild species. On average, each substitution replaces approximately 2,000 cotton genes.

“Having already developed chromosome substitution lines for many chromosomes from three donor species, Stelly is working in collaboration with a former graduate student, Dr. Sukumar Saha, now with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service unit at Mississippi State University, and his associates, to document their effects on cotton plant and fiber improvement,” the university said.

“We have excellent genetic types of cotton and excellent cotton breeders, but we need ‘new blood’ or new cotton genes, to create lots of new genetic combinations, of which a few are likely to yield significant improvements,” Stelly added. “Industrial technologies and competition from synthetic petroleum-based fibers demand significant modifications and enhancements to cotton fiber physical and chemical properties, especially those that affect dying and high-speed processing.”