Sunday, January 17, 2010

Eating Cotton

Sounds delicious, doesn't it? Bet you can't wait to get yourself some. I'm sure you've all anxiously awaited the day when the phrase "cottonmouth" could be more than just an analogy.

Yet to the more than 1 billion malnourished people in the world, the idea of eating cotton may be the best news involving cotton since the invention of cotton candy. You see, cottonseeds also happen to be a rich source of protein, and the current cotton crop would yield enough seeds to meet the daily protein requirements for half a billion people...if only it could be edible.

The problem has always been that the seeds also contain a toxic chemical called 'gossypol, which must be removed through an extensive refining process to make cottonseeds edible for people. This chemical agent can't be stomached by humans and most animals, but that's sort of the point. Gossypol is crucial in protecting the plant from pests, who would otherwise devour any crop yields before they could be harvested. When scientists genetically engineer the crop without it, the plant doesn't stand a chance in the field, which has always prevented the cultivation of cotton seeds for food.

Now for the happy news: Keerti Rathore, a professor at Texas A & M University, has recently found a way to bypass this problem through genetic engineering. The breakthrough utilizes a process that turns off the genes which produce gossypol in the cottonseeds only while the rest of the plant continues to produce the chemical as a defense against pests. Field trial data released in the second half of 2009 shows that the process appears to be a success: the modified cotton appears to be normal in every other way except that it contains edible seeds.

But how does it taste? The flavor has been compared to chickpeas. Seeds will probably first see their use as a supplement to animal feed, yet this would still free up other grains for the food supply and boost overall food production. They'll also need FDA approval before making their way onto people's dinner tables. We'll try to keep you updated, but if this works, it could be a major breakthrough in food production for a starving world. Considering how dire food shortages are predicted to become in the near future, it's a welcome revelation.

Other quick facts:
*Around 44 million metric tons of cottonseed is produced each year.

*23% of cottonseed is protein

*The plant has been cultivated for its fiber for more than 7,000 years. Today it is grown by more than 20 million farmers in some 80 countries.

*Cotton accounts for nearly 40% of the fiber used worldwide to make clothing.

*Scientists used a new technique called RNA interference (RNA is similar to DNA but regulates chemical signatures -as opposed to proteins) to construct a genetic sequence that blocked the gossypol-producing enzyme in the seeds only.

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