Susan "Sue" Owen '94 October 29, 2018 1:15 PM updated: October 29, 2018 2:44 PM
A Texas A&M biotechnologist’s decades of work have brought a future food source closer to reality for millions.
Cottonseed is high in protein but contains a natural compound toxic to humans and many animals. Dr. Keerti Rathore’s Texas A&M Agrilife Research team genetically engineered a cotton variety in which the seeds have much lower levels of the toxin, gossypol, and in October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved its deregulation, opening the door to future commercial production.
“You could meet the basic protein requirements of hundreds of millions of people,” Rathore told the San Antonio Express-News. Cotton farmers could also boost their income, with the same crop producing both food and fiber, he said. Cotton plants produce 1.6 pounds of seed for every pound of fiber produced.
Until now, cottonseed has only been available as a food source for ruminants such as cattle, whose stomachs can process the gossypol.
“What we have done is silence a gene that is responsible for producing gossypol in the cotton plant, but we have silenced that gene only in the seed,” Rathore said in a Texas Standard interview. “It is still active in the rest of the plant. The gossypol is necessary for the plant to defend itself against insects, pests and predators.”
Low-gossypol cottonseed could be used as feed in raising fish, pigs and poultry. It could also provide protein directly to humans; NPR's report noted that Rathore's team roasted and ate some, finding that the seeds tasted like chickpeas.
“Growing up in rural India as the son of a doctor, I had seen the effects of malnutrition firsthand in my father’s patients,” Rathore said. “Many of their health issues were due to inadequate food and nutrition.”
India, China and the U.S. are the world's largest cotton producers; many cotton-growing countries also have high rates of malnutrition.
Low-gossypol cottonseed, Rathore said, "provides a novel means to meet the nutritional requirements of the burgeoning world population.”
Read more at Texas A&M Today.
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