COTTON like lycra? Natural fibres for a non-iron shirt, or even a waterproof jacket?
That is the aim of research from Cotton Breeding Australia, a joint venture between CSIRO and Cotton Seed Distributors (CSD).
A team lead by CSIRO’s Dr Filomena Pettolino is researching fibre genetics to help Australia’s cotton industry make ground against not just with the keen competition from China and the US, but to take a slice of the market back from the growing share of synthetic fibres.
“The synthetic industry is investing in ways to make it feel more like a cotton, because people like the feel of natural fibres,”said Dr Pettolino,a specialist in plant cell wall structure.
“Cotton can’t do some of the things synthetics do. It creases and it doesn’t stretch like synthetics. So we want to to give cotton the qualities of synthetics, but retain that nice, natural feel.”
In 1995 synthetics comprised about half the global fibre market. Since then the market has grown with the world’s population, but so too has synthetics share, which now has more than 75 per cent market share.
“Demand for cotton has remained fairly stable, but it has not kept up with the growth of synthetics,” Dr Pettolino said.
“Our research is looking at opportunities to grow the cotton’s market share.”
She said the team’s effort is split between straight science of plant cells and genetic editing to create varieties with commercial traits.
“One element is purely fundamental looking at fibre biology. Another is trying to ensure Australian cotton remains competitive.”
The researchers are endeavouring to increase their understanding of which genes contribute to cotton fibres length and strength, as well as looking at how to use gene editing or swapping to achieve desirable outcomes.
“That could mean taking genes from an Egyptian cotton species and combining its traits with a high yielding variety to achieve good yield and fibres. Another strategy is using genetic engineering to introduce a foreign gene to produce desired outcomes, but that is more of a blue sky initiative.”
Naturally mutated plants could provide insights into what genes are important to fibre qualities and offer opportunities for new varieties. Dr Pettolino said her team is studying one that produces unusually short fibres.
“It looks really woolly, not at all like a normal boll, with cute little seeds covered in fur, not nice long fibres.”
Dr Pettolino joined CSIRO seven years ago to work on the cotton research team, which has been in pace for 10 years. The research is still in early stages, but has progressed to a “proof of concept” stage Dr Pettolion said, where the expression of genes to determine cotton fibre qualities.