Over the past century, cotton has been one of the most researched plants on the planet. But as cotton production continues evolving, scientists are confronted with new puzzles about nature’s complex fiber-producing factory.

In recent years, concerns about fiber quality and other issues have led to an increased emphasis on breeding, genetics, and genomics programs, both public and private.

That more intense focus has created a greater demand for researchers, already in short supply.

Cotton Incorporated, the research and promotion organization funded by U.S. growers and importers, has taken an unusual approach to securing qualified persons to conduct these important studies.

In 2003, it launched the Cotton Incorporated Fellows Program, which recruits PhD students and post-doctoral researchers to address critical issues related to cotton breeding.

“There is a real shortage of U.S.-trained scientists in this field,” says Roy Cantrell, vice president of agricultural research for Cotton Incorporated, the research and promotion organization funded by growers and importers. “But these researchers are key to solving the difficult quality issues confronting the industry and to the long-term future of cotton improvement.”

In 2004, nine CI-funded fellows were working at Clemson University, the University of Georgia, Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Arkansas, New Mexico State University, and the University of California-Davis.

“All are involved in Cotton Incorporated research projects, working for you,” Cantrell told members of the Cotton Board’s Agriculture and Fiber Quality Research Committee at the board’s annual meeting at Seattle. “Some are working on very applied science, looking at variety stability and fiber quality issues; others are involved in really cutting edge research, looking at new ways of analyzing fiber, new ways to associate fiber traits with spinning traits, so we can better predict end product fiber quality.”

A lot of today’s research, he notes, is directed at trying to develop better, more predictive tests relating raw cotton fiber to its performance in the mills and to the quality of the finished product. “That’s not an easy thing to do,” Cantrell says, “and a lot of our research is directed at these goals.”

The program is focusing on strengthening public cotton genetic improvement programs to provide major benefits to U.S. cotton growers; accelerating genetic improvement of fiber quality and yield stability; and expanding applications of genomic tools (DNA markers) to cotton genetic enhancement.

“Problems and challenges facing the genetic improvement of cotton demand the attention of great minds,” Cantrell says. “Many of these scientists will be future leaders in the U.S. cotton breeding community.”

Some of the CI fellows will be graduating at the end of the year, he says, “and we’re looking forward to getting them into the industry — whether with seed companies or biotech companies — and making an impact on cotton’s future. Maybe 100 percent of them won’t go to work in cotton, but we’re confident that enough of them will that it will make a difference in the success of this industry.”

In February 2003, one of the original five fellows, Joe Johnson, was hired as a cotton breeder at the USA Agricultural Research Station at Stoneville, Miss.

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com