Cotton May Be Promising Source of Protein

WASHINGTONCotton is emerging as a promising source of protein for millions of the world’s malnourished, according to the latest research.

Researchers engineered the cotton to reduce the toxic gossypol to tolerable levels in the high-protein seed, without affecting higher levels in the rest of the plant, to ward off pests and disease.

“The results look very promising,” said Keerti Rathore, the Texas AgriLife Research plant bio-technologist in whose lab the cotton was developed.

Rathore said kernels from the safe seed could be ground into a flour-like powder and used as a protein additive in food preparations or perhaps roasted and seasoned as a nutritious snack.

Less than three years ago, Rathore had announced that cotton plants had been successfully altered in the lab to “silence” gossypol in the seed.

But this year, five generations of cotton plants produced in greenhouses and the small test plot in the field are showing similar findings, Rathore said, though the results have not yet been published in scholarly journals.

Gossypol has long been a block for cotton farmers trying to make cotton seed available for human or animal consumption.

Cotton fibers have been spun into fabric for more than 7,000 years, but generally only cattle have been able to eat the fuzzy seeds that are separated from the fiber.

Cattle can tolerate the gossypol because it is gradually digested through their unique four-part stomach.

“The levels of gossypol and related defense chemicals are similar to that of regular cotton plants in the buds, leaves and flowers. But the seed is still showing the ultra-low levels of gossypol.”

The “beauty of this project,” Rathore said, is that the high-protein seed could be a new food source – especially in developing countries.

Because the variety is “genetically modified,” the scientist and AgriLife Research will have to negotiate with others who hold patent rights to some of the basic technologies used to develop this “ultra-low seed-gossypol” cotton.

Rathore will also have to seek approval from the US Department of Agriculture, US Food and Drug Administration and perhaps other agencies to make it commercially available as seed to farmers.

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