It's hard not to notice the dozens of new cotton lines rolling out of public cotton breeding programs across the Cotton Belt these days.
The releases are, in part, a fruit of labor for the Cotton Breeding and Genetics Initiative implemented in 2002 by Cotton Incorporated. Its objective is to turn around yield and quality trends in hopes of ultimately improving U.S. cotton.
The grower-funded project also has supported a group of Cotton Incorporated Fellows to work under the direction of both cotton breeders and molecular biologists. The Fellows probe exotic cotton germplasm to identify and refine genetic alternatives or improvements to presently-used varieties.
A major objective of the latter is to make sure that the cotton industry has available scientists trained in the genetic methods necessary to accomplish the goal.
The cotton gene pool came to somewhat of a standstill in the 1990s, when revolutionary new transgenic traits were being placed into what were arguably the best cotton varieties available.
Private companies were not only getting bogged down inserting technology and backcrossing it, but the technologies themselves were jumping through regulatory hoops required by EPA. It was difficult to continue germplasm development at the same rate of speed as it was being developed prior to the introduction of the technologies.
The results were often stagnant yields and persistent quality problems.
Today, a corner is being turned. Private companies finally cleared away time to get back to work on new germplasm. And recently, the Cotton Incorporated initiative has supplied the impetus to kick public cotton breeding programs into high gear.
And both public and private companies are looking for ways to work together, to make sure that the good germplasm not only gets to the field but meets the demand for high quality in the growing export market.
For example, Monsanto's Cotton States business unit allows many public cotton breeding programs to incorporate Monsanto's transgenic traits.
“They will conditionally accept materials for testing from public and private and smaller private companies that meet certain criteria,” said Fred Bourland, cotton breeder at the Northeast Research and Extension Center, Keiser, Ark. “In our case, we are able to maintain rights to the conventional version.”
Currently, the Cotton States program has similar agreements with 17 breeding programs across the Cotton Belt, including seven with universities.
Over the last two years, Bourland has released 16 conventional cotton lines, eight for expanding the current germplasm and eight for development of cultivars by private companies. Some are having Bollgard II or Flex genes put into them by Monsanto.
Almost all Bourland's material has bacterial blight resistance. “It is a good indicator of genetic purity, plus it gives us a little extra resistance,” Bourland said. “Right now, we're doing extensive work on root knot nematode resistance, even though we haven't released anything that is highly resistant.”
All Bourland's lines are screened for tarnished plant bug resistance, and some of his nectariless lines are showing some promise while maintaining yield. In one project, we're going to be screening all the variety tests for tarnished plant bug resistance. We're looking at the possibility of raising thresholds where we have seen some resistance to plant bug in cotton lines.”
In addition, Bourland and a colleague are working on a quality index for cotton varieties. “It's basically a selection index based on the primary factors for the foreign market, including lower micronaire and longer length.
“Producers can be overwhelmed by the number of cotton varieties available,” Bourland explained. “It's often difficult for a farmer to piece together the value of the various quality properties, especially with the number of cotton varieties available. This way, they simply ask, ‘what's the score?’ It should simplify things. The quality index can also be used in a breeding program. We'll start putting data into the program this fall.”
Louisiana State University cotton breeder Gerald Myers is evaluating several new cotton lines, two of which were recently approved for release. The breeding program is funded through royalties from previous variety releases.
His work was made easier with the help of a Cotton Incorporated Fellow Sterling Brooks Blanche, a PhD candidate at LSU. Blanche's work “focused on tools that could be used to improve the efficiency with which we developed germplasm.”
In addition to funding Blanche, the initiative “also provided money for research we undertook as part of his training. It helped validate scientifically what we had known anecdotally. The work is applicable to cotton and other crops.”
Myers' potential lines have yield comparable to most other conventional lines, but he also has lines with up to a 20 percent improvement in fiber strength. “One variety not yet released has been in the Cotton States program for two years, and there is a Bollgard II/Roundup Ready Flex version.”
Peggy Thaxton, a cotton breeder at MSU's Delta Research and Extension Center, says the Cotton Incorporated initiative “gives us an operating budget. Without it, most public breeding programs couldn't function.”
Thaxton is using the pollen from a Mississippi State transgenic cotton line developed jointly by MSU cotton breeder Ted Wallace at the Starkville campus and Monsanto to make crosses into public cotton breeding lines.
Wallace created MSU's first transgenic cotton breeding line through Cotton States by sending a high-performing cotton he developed to Monsanto for trait integration.
“One of my varieties, MISCOT 8806, performed within 95 percent of the best commercial check and justified trait integration,” Wallace said. “In May 2005, Monsanto sent me approximately 30 progeny rows of transgenic versions of the original MISCOT 8806 conventional variety to grow, observe and select the top entries for further testing.
“Performance of these entries during widespread yield trials across the Cotton Belt this summer will dictate whether or not Monsanto will attempt to market one or more of the new transgenic versions of the original MISCOT 8806 variety,” Wallace added.”
Wallace is the coordinator for another program funded by the Cotton Incorporated Initiative — the Regional Breeding Testing Network. The coordinated testing program allows public cotton breeders to evaluate material in a much broader geographic range and cross with materials in the program.
Bill Meredith, a distinguished research geneticist and cotton breeder at the USDA/ARS in Stoneville, agrees that current fiber qualities and yields need improvement.
“The world is changing and our primary customers are overseas,” Meredith said. “They desire fibers that are different from those released in the 1990s. To get the most for our producers, you need to improve yield and fiber quality and also make good use of transgenes.”
Other traits Thaxton will be looking to incorporate are reniform nematode resistance, disease resistance and insect resistance. “I hope to put traits into the transgenic cotton line that private companies don't,” Thaxton said. “They are after yield because they have to sell their seed, but we're more flexible in that we can work with other traits as well.”