Cantrell did not promise that CI would lead the charge to beat the Chinese on sequencing the cotton genome, but he did lay out an aggressive cotton breeding and genetics initiative Cotton Incorporated is mounting in response to industry concerns about erosion in fiber quality of the U.S. cotton crop.

“This troubling trend must be reversed if we are to remain competitive in world cotton markets,” Cantrell told the Beltwide Cotton Production Conference in Nashville Tuesday.

“I am optimistic that this trend will reverse, and we will get back on track of growing a higher quality of cotton in many regions of the Cotton Belt,” he said.

CI’s efforts are focusing on rebuilding the genetic base of cotton through germplasm enhancement. This, he said, is the foundation off cotton’s “house” and it has been neglected for at least 20 years due to a lack of public germplasm development.

“Unfortunately, the research capacity of government agencies has tightened as budget deficits mount across the belt and in the nation’s capitol.”

That is why he said it is more important than ever that Cotton Incorporated, the grower-funded research and promotion arm of the U.S. Cotton industry, help pick up the funding slack in these difficult economic times.

Genetic diversity has not been lost, Cantrell contends.

“There is a lot of gold in the hills. The difficulty is knowing what to use and how to use it,” said Cantrell.

This year the number of DNA markers will increase more than three-fold through efforts funded by CI. “It is very important that these be used without restrictions,” said Cantrell, who said this information would be published this year in a scientific journal. The DNA markers provide a roadmap for cotton scientists in developing high quality and higher yielding cottons.

Heat tolerance is one key to increasing yields, and Cantrell said CI is funding a coordinate shuttle-breeding program that combines field screen and evaluation of boll retention and pollen fertility in Arizona with breeding programs in Georgia and California to develop more heat germplasm all breeders can use.

This germplasm program is complemented by evaluation of metabolic of the genetic strains and parents in greenhouse and growth chamber experiments with USDA-ARS in Texas.

CI is also funding efforts to evaluate the relationship between higher lint number per seed and fiber quality traits. High yields often impact negatively on fiber properties. CI is also funding DNA-marker research to develop cottons resistant to root knot nematodes as well as the genetic resistance of reniform nematodes.

Cantrell said these programs are moving forward with a sense of urgency to recover the 20 years of lost ground. CI funding is helping speed the process by supporting the winter nursery in Mexico.

This nursery has been used by private and public agencies for many years to reduce the breeding time by at least five years. However, this nursery was not being fully utilized because of budget cuts in the public breeding sector. CI is now providing significant support of this program to benefit projects in Arizona, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

One of the pitfalls to public breeding is the loss of experimental seed increases due to weather and other factors. To counter these costly and unexpected losses, CI is establishing a public germplasm increase program in Arizona where public breeders can grow experimental strains for expanded regional tests in their home areas.

Arizona is a major commercial seed producing state because of its almost tropical growing and harvest conditions. Cotton Incorporated efforts will allow public breeders in the Mid-South and Southeast to take advantage of the same ideal conditions to ensure that their seed increase nursery programs keep moving forward with multiple locations.

And, finally Cotton Incorporated is funding a fellowship program to train the next generation of U.S. scientists in cotton improvement. Five fellows are currently working at Texas A&M, Louisiana State University, Clemson and the University of Arkansas.

These Ph. D. or postdoctoral students are all involved in cotton breeding, genetics and molecular biology.

“They will be the future scientists and leaders in USDA, state universities, and the commercial seed industry. This is clearly an investment in the future,” Cantrell.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com