Tailoring new cotton genes for industry

It was once the proud boast that Australia rode on the sheep's back. The country was known worldwide for the quality of its wool, and export income showed it. Synthetic fibres changed that picture. Modern fabrics are often blends of natural and man-made fibres,and Australian wool exports have suffered accordingly.

The other major natural fibre is cotton. Traditionally grown offshore, it has recently been introduced as an Australian crop. Like wool, it is often blended with synthetic fibres, but Adelaide University scientists are working to improve the quality of natural cotton fibres themselves.

Cotton fibres are unique. Each is a single cell up to 2.5 cm long. Thousands of them together form a white, fluffy cotton boll that is harvested when mature, and all the fibres from a single boll are developmentally identical. Identifying and modifying the genes that control the development of these fibres promises many potential benefits in changing their properties and, therefore, the properties of threads and fabrics produced from them.

In Australia, Upland cotton is mainly grown in Northern New South Wales and Southern Queensland. In the 1998-1999 season, 553,000 hectares were planted to cotton, with 15% of the crop being genetically modified (transgenic).

Ingard, Australia's transgenic cotton, has a natural resistance to a major pest, the cotton bollworm. Growth of Ingard cotton has resulted in a drop of 40-50% in overall pesticide use as measured over three seasons from 1996-99.

90% of Australian cotton is exported to buyers in Indonesia, Korea and Japan and its value is more than $1 billion per year, recently overtaking export earnings from wool for the first time. Lake Tandou near Broken Hill grows Pima cotton; lower-yielding than Upland cotton but finer, and exported mainly to Italy and Switzerland.

Dr Sharon Orford and her colleagues in Adelaide University's Genetics Department are interested in the regulatory aspec

Contact: Dr Sharon Orford
Adelaide University

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