Cottonseed is a potential source of protein which could play a key role in human and non-ruminant animal nutrition, such as chicken and fish. However, the presence of a toxin, called gossypol, prevents cottonseed to be used to its full potential. Gossypol protects cotton plants against insect pests and when removed from the vegetative portion of the plant, the plant becomes highly susceptible to insect damage. Its presence in the seed serves no apparent purpose. By employing RNAi technology plant biotechnologists, at Texas A&M AgriLife Research, have developed a cotton variety that exhibits ultra-low levels of gossypol in its seeds while retaining normal levels of it in the plant itself. Cottonseed oil is used for human consumption as the oil is refined to remove the toxic gossypol. However cottonseed or the cottonseed cake, which remains after extracting the oil from the cotton seeds, can only be used to supplement feed for ruminants, notably cattle that can tolerate higher levels of gossypol.
This promising newly developed ultra-low level gossypol cottonseed (ULGCS) can now be used as a source of protein for humans and other non-ruminants which can have exciting social and environmental benefits. If adopted by the cotton growers worldwide, ULGCS has the potential to make a significant impact on nutrition security, especially in developing, cotton-growing countries in Asia and Africa. Edible cottonseed could meet the protein requirements of 500 million people. It could also be used as feed, for animals like chickens or fish, that are much more efficient than cattle in converting feed into muscle mass. This will assist with meeting the nutrition needs of a growing population while reducing the area under cultivation. This is important as it could reduce agricultural land-clearing of virgin rain forests and other places to provide space to grow more soybeans to satisfy the rising demand for protein. Another potential benefit is that ULGCS, by serving as a substitute for fishmeal, will positively impact the environment by reducing pressure on the critically strained supply of small, wild-caught marine fish used as a source of feed in fish farms.
At the same time cotton farmers will be able to earn a considerably better living. Cotton will continue to be grown as a source of natural fibre, but the adoption of the ULGCS varieties by farmers has the potential to make the seed just as valuable as the lint without an increase in the input costs.
The ULGCS cotton has already received all the required regulatory approvals required for its cultivation and use in the United States. The ULGCS trait will now be backcrossed into diverse cotton cultivars adapted to the various environments in which cotton is planted. Discussions to approve, grow and market ULGCS cotton in other countries are also underway.
ULGCS is a unique biotech trait that will benefit farmers, the cottonseed processing industry, the environment and human health. This innovation demonstrates the important role that public institutions have in developing technologies that address environmental and social development needs.
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