HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The ability to spin a good yarn recently kept an international team of researchers focused on Gossypium raimondii, the simplest cotton genome. The researchers, including Jeremy Schmutz, faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha and head of the plant program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute, compared the high quality draft assembly of the G. raimondii genome against other cotton species. The team’s findings are presented in the Dec. 20, 2012 edition of Nature.

“By accumulating genetic markers from a variety of species for a variety of qualities, we can facilitate better and targeted cotton strains,” said Schmutz. Textiles, biofuels production and environmental remediation are among broad categories that could benefit from specific traits, while reducing pesticide use, improving disease resistance and promoting more efficient water usage would provide across-the-board benefits.

Indigenous to the Americas, G. raimondii, while not commonly found in U.S. fields, was chosen for sequencing because it has a comparatively small genome and is less complex than most varieties. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided several sets of data,” said Schmutz, “and overall, more than 20 years of analysis gleaned from numerous organizations has brought us to this point.” The team of researchers representing 31 institutions traced the evolution of cotton over millions of years, from wild varieties to what is currently grown for modern production.

While much of U.S. cotton is used in textiles, the cotton data will accelerate the study of gene function in cellulose biosynthesis, a fundamental process in biofuels production.  Additionally, cotton is important in bioremediation efforts. “Cotton can absorb many times its weight in oil and can be useful for cleanup efforts,” said Schmutz, referencing the Deepwater Horizon spill.  “Cotton is also a metal concentrator.” The cotton plant draws metals up into its leaves, he explained, removing heavy metals from soil.

In the U.S., more than 200,000 domestic jobs are related to cotton production and processing, with an aggregate influence of $35 billion on the annual U.S. gross domestic product. The value of cotton fiber grown in the U.S. exceeds $6 billion per year. Cottonseed oil and meal byproducts add another $1 billion annually.

Top cotton-producing counties in Alabama include Limestone, Madison, Lawrence, Monroe, Colbert, Escambia, Lauderdale, Cherokee, Baldwin and Geneva.  According to the Alabama Cotton Producers, the state ranks ninth in the nation in production.

Schmutz said the study is a good example of government, academic and industry resources coming together for crop improvement.  In addition to DOE JGI, other key organizations include the University of Georgia, the USDA, Cotton Incorporated, Iowa State University, Mississippi State University, the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Hear more about this project from Jeremy Schmutz in this DOE JGI video: or read the DOE JGI release here.

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