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Shifting seed industry relies on public cotton breeding programs

Over the past 15 to 20 years the landscape in which new cottonseed varieties are developed has changed at a pace only those directly involved can truly appreciate. Advances in biotechnology, a science in many ways still in its infancy, have fueled much of the change.

Biotechnology is clearly making a big impact in the marketplace as dozens of new cotton varieties have become available in the last few years. What many fail to understand is that the potential for biotechnology to radically change the way cotton varieties are developed is still years away from being fully harnessed.

In 2005 and 2006, after an explosion of new varieties in the High Plains marketplace, biotechnology’s second generation appears to be delivering on the promise of accelerated development timelines and innovative new technology.

West Texas cotton producers now have a plethora of options to take the place of first generation glyphosate and Bacillus thuringiensis technology that first arrived on the scene a decade ago.

Today producers can select new varieties that incorporate everything Bollgard II and Roundup Ready Flex resistance, developed by leading cotton technology provider Monsanto, to alternative herbicide resistance technology in the form of Bayer CropScience’s LibertyLink, and an alternative Bt cotton technology called Widestrike, offered for the first time by High Plains market newcomer PhytoGen.

Altogether, some 140 cottonseed options were available for producers to sort through at the start of the 2006 growing season and if the trend continues they’ll have even more in 2007.

The next round of biotechnology breakthroughs is just around the corner, making it increasingly important that producers continue to involve themselves in variety development by interacting and communicating with seed providers and by supporting a separate line of germplasm research to be kept in the public domain.

Seed Companies Say PCIP Still Relevant

While there are many unanswered questions as a result of the monumental changes taking place in the cottonseed industry, one of the consistent messages commercial cottonseed company’s continue to deliver to Lubbock-based Plains Cotton Growers Inc., and cotton breeders like John Gannaway from the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, is that public cotton breeding programs still play a critical role in the development of cotton varieties with enhanced disease resistance, improved yield and quality potential.

That is the main reason why cotton producers on the Texas High plains continue to support the Plains Cotton Improvement Program and its innovative and forward-looking producer directed cotton research programs.

One of PCIP’s main research activities is support for Gannaway’s traditional cotton breeding program as well as a germplasm screening project that will catalogue and identify cotton traits from thousands of domesticated and wild cotton genotypes from around the world. Other key research priorities include screening breeding lines for soil-borne disease and nematode resistance and evaluating currently available commercial varieties in on-farm situations through Texas Extension cotton specialist Randy Boman’s large plot systems evaluation testing program.

Through every phase of the PCIP research program, commercial cottonseed developers have noted the importance of PCIP agronomic information and breeding lines to their operations. Whether to help identify market trends or set the direction for the agronomic traits they want to include in a new cotton variety, the information and germplasm that originates from the PCIP is often utilized early in the process.

“Biotechnology has made a tremendous splash in cotton over the past few years,” says Gannaway, who heads the TAES cotton-breeding program in Lubbock, Texas. “All you have to do is scan a list of varieties available for sale in 2006 to see how many are enhanced with herbicide and insect resistance or a combination of the two.

“What you won’t see on that list is anything marketed as having better quality or a significantly higher yield potential as a direct result of the insertion of a gene identified and developed through the biotechnology pipeline.”

Gannaway says that while herbicide and insect resistance traits have in many cases allowed producers to wring more pounds per acre from both old and new varieties, the reason is that all of the currently available cottonseed technologies are essentially giving plants an opportunity to reach the genetic potential originally bred into them the old fashioned way.

Developing Enhanced Germplasm Only Part of PCIP Benefits

Efforts like the PCIP are critical to keep a significant level of public interest in the biotechnology process, says Gannaway.

He says as the products of cottonseed providers continue to include a greater array of protected technologies, complicated issues, such as intellectual property rights, make it imperative that producers be directly involved in the initial technology development process.

By being involved either through germplasm development or the public identification and distribution of desirable genetic traits, producers have a greater ability to ensure that competition remains in the marketplace and that growers are charged fairly for the technology they obtain through a seed purchase.

Organizations such as Plains Cotton Growers and programs such as the Plains Cotton Improvement Program are key to producers having the ability to contribute directly to the development and marketing of future biotechnology advances, says Gannaway.

Eventually, Gannaway says gene mapping and marker assisted breeding efforts will make his job and the job of conventionally trained cotton breeders easier. He warns that the role of the conventional cotton breeder won’t be obsolete even then and it is important to have a new generation of breeders trained and ready to move ahead.

“We can already take a piece of genetic material, introduce it in a plant and come out with a new trait in a fairly reasonable amount of time,” he says. “But it still isn’t much faster than the conventional process in terms of identifying a breeding line with a set of desirable traits and refining it to variety status.”

Training and identifying talented young people interested in becoming cotton breeders is another less noticeable contribution that the PCIP is making to the industry, says Gannaway.

Until the researchers working on refining biotechnology processes can get most of the kinks worked out and a reliable cotton genetic map pulled together, it will fall to the conventional breeders in both public and commercial settings to make the crosses, select plants and move the variety development cycle forward.

Thanks to programs such as the Plains Cotton Improvement Program, new cotton germplasm carrying significantly improved yield and fiber quality characteristics is being developed and introduced into the marketplace.

For now the primary source of a new cotton variety’s yield or quality improvement come from thousands of years of conventional breeding and selection.

Conventional cotton breeding and technology-based tools will work hand-in-hand for years to come and eventually may take the cotton plant’s capabilities beyond what anyone can yet visualize.

Programs such as the Plains Cotton Improvement Program ensure that producer interests will always be present in the process.

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