Project seeks genes that can be tweaked to get the best cotton

Project seeks genes that can be tweaked to get the best cotton

New Delhi: Scientists in India are poised to kick off a research project to identify and manipulate genes in cotton, especially in Gossypium hirsutum, India’s most popular variety of cotton.

Among other things, the project, which will compete with similar work being undertaken in other countries, seeks to identify genes that determine the quality of the fibre. Scientists then hope to use the discovery to develop superior quality cotton.

“This is a first-of-its-kind project," said V. Siva Reddy, the project leader, “and is expected to provide a fundamental understanding of the various genes that trigger the development of a cotton boll." A boll is the seed capsule of the cotton plant, from which the fibre is extracted.

The five-year project, funded under the World Bank-sponsored National Agricultural Innovation Project (Naip), involves four organizations: the Delhi unit of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, a United Nations-promoted research organization; the department of genetics, University of Delhi; the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, Karnataka; and J.K. Agrigenetics Ltd.

Reddy emphazised that novel genes and promoters identified through the project will be protected in the form of patents by Naip.

Although the cotton genome has not been mapped yet, Reddy says that it would be similar to other plant genomes but differ signficantly with respect to boll and fibre development.

Since a host of environmental factors—such as temperature and humidity—can make a single gene exhibit varied behaviour, this project aims to create a huge database of how genes that influence boll development respond to a range of environmental factors, Reddy added.

Cotton is an important cash crop in India and is presently cultivated in approximately 916 million hectares. Of this, according to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Bt cotton, the only genetically-modified crop that is legally cultivated in the country, is cultivated in about 2.4 million acres. Of the Bt cotton, 90% belongs to Gossypium Hirsutum variety, which is native to the US, and has been cultivated in India for the last two decades.

International work of similar nature include the Centre for Cotton Research and Development project in Australia that has been trying to pinpoint genes that determine why certain varieties of cotton are longer and stronger.

But these studies have been concentrated on local Australian varieties, said Katherine Malone, a scientist involved with the project, in an email.

V.N. Deshpande, a geneticist based out of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, said, “It’s a good idea to have a repository, but such projects are already happening internationally. So it’s a kind of race, where the first to win will patent their findings. So if we are beaten to that, much of the project could be a waste."