Cotton project opens new path for plant protection

Decades of collaborative research and scientific advancements have helped Texan cotton become the economic and industrial force it is today.

Texas cotton farmers have benefited from decades of public-private collaborations between Texas A&M AgriLife, USDA and Cotton Incorporated. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Texas cotton production contributes $2.4 billion to the state’s gross domestic product. From 2019 to 2021, Texas cotton farmers produced an average of 6.2 million bales of cotton from 4.6 million harvested acres, generating $2.1 billion in production value. The Texas cotton industry supports more than 40,000 statewide jobs and $1.55 billion in annual labor income.

Texas A&M AgriLife has a long history of working with the cotton industry and federal agencies to address some of the most pressing issues facing this important part of the Texas economy. A cotton-related project from Texas A&M’s entomology department exemplifies this collaborative approach.

The department’s scientists received a matching grant of nearly $150,000 from the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, NIFA, and the Cotton Board, a growers’ group that represents thousands of producers in Texas and the United States.

The three-year project, Modifying Terpene Biosynthesis in Cotton to Improve Insect Resistance Using a Transgene-Free CRISPR/CAS9 Approach, was awarded $294,000 to research new pest management tools for the cotton production. If successful, these advances could ultimately yield positive results in terms of costs and benefits that will ripple through to the economy and the environment.

Critical Seed Funding from Cotton Incorporated

The NIFA project initiated by Greg Sword, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Researcher, Regents Professor and Charles R. Parencia Endowed Chair in the Department of Entomology, will focus on improving cotton plant resistance to insect pests .

Two large cotton pickers move through a cotton field during harvest
Texas is the leading cotton producing state. Growers across the state have produced about 40% of the U.S. crop in recent years. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Courtney Sacco)

The goal is essentially to silence cotton genes that produce monoterpenes, chemicals that produce an odor of harmful insects, Sword said. By eliminating the odors that pests associate with a good place to feed and breed, scientists believe they can reduce infestations, which in turn will reduce pesticide use and improve profitability.

Sword collaborates with Anjel Helms, Ph.D., chemical ecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Entomology; Michael Thomson, Ph.D., AgriLife Research Geneticist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and the Crop Genome Editing Laboratory; and graduate student Mason Clark.

This research team is working on a project that has been “initiated” by Cotton Incorporated, the not-for-profit industry corporation that supports the research, marketing and promotion of cotton and cotton products.

The seed capital enabled the AgriLife Research team to create a graduate position for Clark and produce preliminary data that laid the foundation for the NIFA grant proposal, Sword said. Additionally, terpene research is part of larger, parallel projects that began with direct support from Cotton Incorporated.

“Cotton Incorporated’s support has been absolutely essential in reviving the project from the start,” he said. “From a scientific perspective, industry support and collaboration are essential to the success of the project, whether it is raising funds for research or identifying, focusing on and resolving a problem, which really helps producers.

Industry collaborations boost impact

Research like Sword’s is augmented and sometimes directly funded by product groups representing producers and related industries.

Jeffrey W. Savell, Ph.D., vice chancellor and dean of agriculture and life sciences, said collaborative projects help research funds have the greatest impact for growers. Texas A&M AgriLife’s relationships with commodity groups that represent growers can initiate groundbreaking work and help established programs maintain momentum.

“Cotton Incorporated has been a longtime partner of ours, and this collaboration has had a tremendous impact on individuals, farms, communities and the state,” Savell said. “This project is just one example of how we can do more by engaging with the growers we serve.”

The Cotton Board’s long-term research invests in a full range of production

Bill Gillon, President and CEO of the Cotton Board, said projects supported by the Cotton Board and Cotton Incorporated have covered the full spectrum of production, including reducing plant water demand, increasing pest and disease resistance and improved seed and fiber quality.

A round bale of cotton wrapped in yellow being moved by a tractor.
Texas cotton contributes $2.4 billion to the state’s gross domestic product. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Cotton Incorporated scientists typically identify a need or vulnerability and create and prioritize topics for potential projects. These projects are developed in coordination with agricultural research programs that will either be funded directly by the group or submitted to funding bodies for competitive grants. The Cotton Board reviews project proposals and approves them for submission to NIFA for competitive grants.

The Cotton Board’s Cotton Research and Promotion Program has generated more than $4 million in competitive NIFA cotton research grants over the past three years, Gillon said. Combined with $1.35 million from the Cotton Board, the program has generated $5.4 million in agricultural research funding for projects critical to improving the productivity and sustainability of upland cotton growers in the states. -United.

Gillon said the Matching Funding Grants represent a collaborative investment that maximizes financial support for science, ultimately impacting growers and local economies across Texas and the Cotton Belt.

“We value our long-standing relationship with Texas A&M and other Cotton Belt institutions, as the work would not be done without their expertise,” he said. “We certainly view this as a partnership and want to support their land-grant mission and help researchers maintain their capabilities, programs, and labs that continue to produce critical results for cotton farmers and agricultural production.”

Industry buy-in creates positive change in society

Research aimed at improving a plant’s ability to tolerate or resist insect pests and diseases through breeding programs is nothing new, especially for a state-funded university research project, said Sword. However, editing the genomes of plants and insect pests is a relatively new but rapidly advancing methodology.

An open cotton boll.
Cotton research continues to improve the way the crop is grown. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

Sequencing genomes of interest and using the CRISPR gene editing tool have become increasingly viable ways to identify and influence plant or animal characteristics.

However, using gene-editing technology to remove a trait to make plants more resistant to pests is new, Sword said. The research could be the genesis of a giant leap in new methodologies designed to protect plants from insects and other threats.

Phillip Kaufman, Ph.D., head of the department of entomology, said a primary goal of his department is to address relevant topics or concerns, from public health to agricultural production. Whether the research responds to the immediate needs of producers or lays the groundwork for breakthroughs in the decades to come, the relevance of many agricultural research projects is guided by the contribution of producers.

Industry buy-in is essential for entomology research, he said. Commodity topics, in this case cotton, and public interest, in this case NIFA, are a good representation of how the land grant mission offers producers, but can also impact communities, the economy and the environment.

Kaufman said strategic public-private support for research emphasizing sustainable practices across the agricultural spectrum has significant benefits.

“This grant project is a good example of how cotton farmers, gins and other elements of their industry are effectively taxing themselves to fund campaigns and research that add value to what they produce” , did he declare. “It also shows the incentive, from a public money perspective, to invest in research focused on providing pest control methods that reduce the use of chemicals.”

Sword’s gene-editing project aims to expose and exploit simple but essential ecological interactions between plants and insects that could help protect the plant.

“Insects are constantly evolving resistance to whatever we throw at them,” Sword said. “It is therefore important that our tools continue to evolve. This can only be accomplished through a committed and focused effort led by land-grant institutions, scientists and growers.

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