It’s been called “the fabric of our lives.”
It’s also the lifeblood of many growers in Alabama.
It’s been cultivated for thousands of years.
But now, scientists in Huntsville are ready to teach this old plant some new tricks.
“I think the quality of what we’re growing now is the best we’ve ever done,” said Mark Yeager, owner of cotton-growing Red Land Farms.
Yeager is just a little biased when he talks about his cotton. His Red Land Farms in Lawrence County grows hundreds of acres of it every year.
“We’re a small gin,” he said. “I just gin my own cotton. We normally do between 7,000 and 8,000 bales.”
When this gin is jumping, it cranks out 2,000 tons of fluffy white fiber every season.
At Red Land, they literally “sew what they reap” into high-end sheets and towels that they sell at their store in Moulton and online.
As proud as Yeager is of his crop, researchers at the Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology are “picking his cotton” apart on a molecular level.
They’re worried about it.
“We are reaching sort of the end of what can be done with the current version of cotton,” said Jeremy Schmutz, faculty investigator.
His team is convinced cotton’s days are numbered.
That would be bad for a lot of reasons. According to the Alabama Farmers Federation, cotton is a $60 billion a year business in this country, creating 340, 000jobs.
It’s in almost everything we touch: Clothes, of course. And sheets, towels, drapes, furniture, window shades, book bindings, medical supplies, money.
Like a lot of crop plants in the US, we’ve optimized cotton for higher production.
But that has come at a price. It can’t protect itself.
“So we have these diseases that are getting introduced in cotton in this country,” said Schmutz. “And our cotton plants have never seen those diseases before.
“These plants, if we want to keep using them for agriculture and for production, we have to keep changing them over time.”
The cotton plant is hungry and it’s thirsty. It needs a lot of fertilizer. It needs a lot of water. There are a variety of fungi and pests that need to be managed.
But scientists say, inside each cell of this plant are the answers to all its problems.
It just doesn’t know it yet.”
“One of the ways of doing that is to be able to go into cotton plants, and make tiny modifications to their DNA to change the way genes function,” said Schmutz.
That could mean turning on a gene that makes cotton a better disease fighter or less attractive to insects. Cotton could be bred with natural fire retardant or anti-bacterial properties to make anti-microbial sheets and bandages for hospitals.
“We can really adapt and expand the choice that’s available for farmers and consumers by applying these kinds of tools and technologies,” said Schmutz.
In fact, your new blue jeans could one day be made from cotton with new blue genes of its own.
“blue, red, orange, yellow, whatever color you like,” said Schmutz.
In the lab, they’re creating new cotton at the genetic level, sequencing the genome and adding or taking away pieces of DNA to produce the cotton of tomorrow.
“The world is ready to start thinking about how do we reduce our impact of our farming operations,” said Schmutz.
And all of these traits - a plant that uses less fertilizer, fewer pesticides, is disease-resistant - is already in cotton.
"Understanding the underlying genetic variation that’s part of those plants, so that we can stack traits that do new things for us in these plants,” said Schmutz.
At Red Land Farms, business is good. And Yeager wants to keep it that way. He’s eager to see how scientists adapt his cash crop to be more sustainable and profitable in the future.
“I’m all for whatever anybody can do to make it better,” he said.