Genome Mapping Signals Brighter Days for U.S. Cotton
From Cotton Grower Magazine – December 2014
If it seems like there are an abundance of new trait packages hitting the cotton market these days, it’s because there are. In 2014, Bayer CropScience introduced TwinLink to cotton. Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences plan to bring XtendFlex and the Enlist Weed Control system, respectively, to the market in the years ahead.
These traits are just a sampling of what’s currently being planned by the major research and development players in American agriculture. But as fast as these changes are seemingly hitting the market, industry insiders say this wave of technology represents only the tip of the iceberg.
A relatively new breeding tool known as genetic mapping has streamlined the trait development process such that revolutionary trait introductions could become a yearly routine. At a time when growers rely increasingly more on genetic advancements in yield and fiber quality to keep cotton economically viable, cotton breeders and researchers are excited about the possibilities.
“When trying to predict the long term benefits, the potential is unlimited,” says Joe Johnson, cotton breeder for PhytoGen. “If you look far enough down the road with molecular marker technology, the importance of the work could be on the level with the development of the mechanical cotton pickers or the cotton gin. Certainly the potential is there.
“Now that’s not going to be a short term benefit, but as we understand the cotton genome better and better, that opens up tremendous possibilities, more than I can imagine. And that’s not just for cotton, all crops will benefit from these tools,” Johnson says.
In a nutshell, genetic mapping allows researchers to more easily pinpoint the genes that carry desirable characteristics in a cotton plant. According to Johnson, some of those desirable characteristics are easier to pinpoint than others. Many characteristics associated with disease protection and nematode resistance are controlled by only one or two genes, making their introduction to commercial farming a more imminent possibility.
“We’ve known about certain specific genes for resistance for some time, it’s just that the methodology is changing to make use of those genes,” says Johnson. “That’ll be the first thing we most likely see as a result of genetic mapping. It maybe doesn’t sound as exciting as other trait introductions, because we’ve already had nematode resistance before for instance, but new methods of confirming it and applied methods of breeding have enabled us to get a much better variety paired with the trait than we would have without it.”
Breeders have their focus on other traits as well – specifically on the all-important characteristics of yield and fiber quality. The process of making significant advancements in those characteristics will be more complex, however.
“As we understand the cotton genome better, I would expect to see tools developed directly related to improving quantitative traits like yield,” says Johnson. “Many, many genes are related to yield, but if we could begin to better identify specific genes, or genetic regions associated with yield, then that would give breeders a decided advantage.”
The practice of genetic mapping isn’t entirely new to agriculture. In fact, corn researchers have a sizable head start in mapping that plant’s genome and subsequently reaping the rewards of that research -“I would consider it more in its infancy for cotton,” Johnson says – although important breakthroughs have been made in recent years.
In December of 2012, researchers at Cotton Incorporated reported a major accomplishment in decoding the cotton genome.
“This scientific breakthrough leverages new biology to put cotton on a trajectory to increase yields, fiber quality and make more efficient use of the inputs necessary to grow cotton,” the article said. It was only one of several major genetic mapping breakthroughs that have occurred since 2010. The scientific community shows no signs of slowing down this progress.
“In a nutshell, I think in the future what we’ll have is better, more efficient breeding tools that will allow us to be able to track and trace more beneficial traits than we have ever before,” Johnson says. “With traditional breeding we have done well to select and have a general idea of what we’ve got, now we will be much more precise locating desirable traits enabling us to provide a grower with varieties that have a much stronger background for many native traits as well as transgenic traits, and it’ll be because we were able to map those traits from the beginning of the breeding process up to release of a new variety.”