An Arizona cotton research project which combines plant breeding and precision agriculture technologies could blow the door off the hinge by improving overall crop tolerance to drought and high heat without yield loss.

The three-year-old project called “high throughput phenotyping of cotton” is led by research geneticist Mike Gore based at the USDA-ARS’ U.S. Arid-Land Agricultural Research Center (ALARC) in Maricopa, Ariz.

One of Gore’s collaborators on the technology side is precision agriculture specialist Pedro Andrade of the University of Arizona (UA) Maricopa Agricultural Center (MAC), also located in Maricopa.

Gore conducts cotton breeding and genetics research at the ALARC laboratory while in-field cultivar tests are measured with precision agriculture measurement tools by Andrade a mile down the road.

Gore’s goal is to develop cotton cultivars which cool during the growing season. A plant reduces its canopy temperature via transpiration (sweating), which helps the plant better tolerate high heat and drought.

Cotton cultivars in general have been developed to better endure high heat and drought. The major drawback is typically reduced fiber yield which reduces the grower’s profit potential.

Gore is breeding for the whole shebang — effective heat and drought tolerance with either no reduction in yield or possibly a yield increase. The success of the project could have far-reaching benefits across a plethora of crops grown around the world.

Cotton phenotypes (traits) are similar to the traits of hair and eye color in humans.

“There is a genetic reason for hair and eye color and a person’s height. While these are easily distinguishable in humans, a plant trait including canopy temperature is more difficult to see,” says Gore, who received his doctorate in plant breeding from Cornell University.

The research project this year includes 135 cultivars of Upland and Pima cottons grown to maturity in a MAC field under extreme desert heat and low water. Next year, Gore will plant and test about 1,000 cultivars.

Gore says the trick is to identify the genes in the cotton genome responsible for plant cooling and use the findings to breed cotton with a level of plant cooling which minimizes water loss while maintaining yield.

“This is a tall order but I believe we can achieve it.”

Gore believes multiple traits must be studied to generate heat and drought tolerant cotton. While the entire Upland and Pima cotton genome have not been sequenced or identified, Gore believes cotton has 60,000 to 80,000 separate genes which offer a lot of information. Each one must be identified and studied.

Others collaborating with Gore in the breeding are the ARS’ Jeff White, Andy French, and Kelly Thorp, also based at ALARC.