By Valerie Flattmann
Cotton research received a shot in the arm earlier this year when Cotton Incorporated inaugurated a unique program within its Breeding and Genetics Initiative.
With an investigative approach, the fiber company of America’s cotton producers launched its Cotton Incorporated Fellowship (CIF) to enhance the training of future cotton breeders and geneticists. It is another example of Cotton Incorporated’s forward thinking philosophy.
“There is an alarming shortage of trained U.S. scientists in cotton breeding and genetics,” Cotton Incorporated’s Vice President of Agricultural Research Dr. Roy G. Cantrell said. “We have initiated a Cotton Incorporated Fellowship program to begin partially addressing this need. This is a program to fund highly qualified Ph.D. graduate students and Post-docs in cotton breeding and genetics at land grant universities in the Cotton Belt.”
Many public research programs have been redirected to molecular biology and genetic engineering that ignores the strong complementary role these areas must have with conventional cotton breeding programs. In addition, many university resources are extremely strained at the present time due to shrinking state revenues and budgets, and the number of students enrolled in agriculture colleges or departments is waning.
“There is a decline in students taking an interest in agricultural studies,” Cantrell said. “Not many kids are raised on farms or in farming areas these days, so their interests are in other fields. The fellowship is designed for students who take an active interest in agriculture and for other students to realize what a potential impact this field holds.”
Candidates for the fellowships must be U.S. citizens and have impressive and strong academic backgrounds and a master’s degree in plant breeding, plant genetics, plant molecular biology, or agronomy. Those selected will be involved in the expansion of cooperative research projects ongoing at public universities as part of the cotton breeding initiative.
Since March 1, 2002, Cotton Incorporated has recruited and selected three Ph.D. graduate students for the fellowship. They are Brian Gardunia and Chris Braden at Texas A&M University and Michael Palmer at Clemson University. Cotton Incorporated also selected Dr. Joseph Johnson, a post- doctorate student at the University of Arkansas. All have exceptional academic credentials. These students, according to Cantrell, will be part of the next generation of trained cotton scientists for universities and seed companies.
“Very important areas of cotton research hold great potential for unraveling the basic functions of the cotton plant,” Cantrell said. “It’s opening new opportunities for improving and fine tuning cotton through biotechnology and breeding.”
Thousands of DNA markers are under development for cotton, and they can have immediate application in tagging important traits to facilitate breeding. DNA markers also are being used extensively to introduce novel genetic variation from cotton’s wild relatives into breeding programs, according to Cantrell.
The research areas will include cotton population development and improvement, enhanced evaluation of cotton breeding material, and expanding DNA marker development and application that will aid cotton seed companies in their advancement.
“Cotton probably has between 30,000 and 50,000 genes and over 2.4 billion base pairs of DNA,” Cantrell said. “Of course, we don’t have the resources compared to the human genome project, yet DNA sequencing and DNA marker technology can still be used to develop genomic toolkits for sustained and remarkable future improvements in the production and fiber quality of cotton.”
The Cotton Incorporated fellows will receive a competitive stipend worthy of their academic standing, and they will have annual contracts that are now being drafted and reviewed by Cotton Incorporated staff. Plans are to feature and introduce the fellows at the Cotton Incorporated display during the 2003 Beltwide Cotton Conference.
“The problems and challenges facing cotton now and in the future” Cantrell said, “require that we employ the newest technological innovations to improve fiber quality and profitability of cotton production in the U.S. This is an expanded endeavor for Cotton Incorporated and illustrates our commitment to the sustained genetic improvement of cotton at all levels.”