It might not have felt like it at the time, but when cotton breeders added herbicide tolerance and insect resistance traits to varieties more than a decade ago they were doing the easy stuff.

Adding drought tolerance, improved fiber quality and verticillium wilt resistance, among other needed traits, offers greater challenges.

“The easy stuff is done,” says Roy Cantrell, cotton molecular breeding lead for Monsanto.

“Some genes are easy to move,” adds John Purcell, Monsanto's cotton technology lead. “Some traits are controlled by a single gene. But breeders today are faced with improving complex traits and the more complex the longer it takes.”

That's why they and Texas AgriLife Research cotton breeders believe Monsanto's gift of 4,000 cotton molecular markers and associated information will serve as a catalyst to speed the pace of improving cotton varieties.

Monsanto announced the gift, tagged “the largest private donation of cotton technology,” during the Texas Cotton Ginners Association Expo in Lubbock. The molecular markers and other information will be offered to the public domain through globally accessible cotton genome databases. Research programs and breeders interested in one of the world's key crops, and an economic staple to West Texas, will benefit from the technology, Purcell says.

Monsanto representatives say the gift will help scientists map the cotton genome and has the potential to contribute to cotton farmers and the land they farm.

“Farmers are looking for ways to increase productivity … to meet growing demand for food, feed and fiber,” Purcell said. “Last year, we announced a challenge to double production by 2030, using 2000 as the base. We think that's possible through our research and by working with others in the industry through efforts like this. This donation of molecular markers is an active component of realizing that vision and will help the cotton community achieve that goal.”

Jane Dever, Texas A&M cotton breeder at Lubbock, said the donation provides “more targets and more flexibility to deal with problems we have as cotton breeders. Also, we can do a better job of training plant breeders and giving them the tools they need to make a difference.”

Richard Percy, research leader of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service's crop germplasm research unit in College Station, manages the cottonDB database, which will house the information. He said the donation greatly increases the number of markers now available to the public.

“The cotton genome is very large and complex compared to other plants that have already been mapped,” Percy said. “This donation will stimulate research and development in the cotton industry by providing powerful tools that will ultimately help cotton farmers get more out of every acre.”

Scientists often use genetic markers as a flag to identify the specific location of a genetic trait on a chromosome. By flagging the desired trait, plant breeders can breed plants more efficiently and more accurately.

Purcell said molecular markers offer breeders significant advantages over conventional methods and “can accelerate the pace. The more complex the trait, the more markers speed up the process,” he said.

Cantrell said molecular markers are like mileposts along an interstate highway and indicate where certain genes are located.

They say molecular markers will help scientists map the cotton genome. “We're closer than we've ever been,” Cantrell said. “The cotton genome is much larger than something like grain sorghum. It's probably five times larger and more complex.”

Purcell said Monsanto has identified areas of the cotton genome with disease resistance or high yield potential. “Adding markers helps researchers find specific traits where and when they need them. Markers let us screen a lot of cotton varieties in the lab before even going to the field. This saves a lot of time and money.”

“Texas A&M University and Texas AgriLife Research have a long and storied history of strong cotton research,” said Bill McCutchen, associate director for AgriLife Research. “We have numerous projects geared to increased yield, fiber quality, disease resistance and the like, so the more information our faculty has in the form of markers, the faster we can make improvements to benefit cotton farmers.”

Wayne Smith, professor and associate head of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, said, “Cotton breeders and their students will mine the Monsanto SSR markers to determine their association with traits of value to the cotton industry. Access to these markers will enhance our graduate student training by providing hands-on experience with cutting-edge molecular tools.”

To provide full utility of the marker set, a detailed academic article has been submitted to the Journal of Cotton Science. Publication is anticipated this summer.

Monsanto scientists screened the company's markers against other public databases to eliminate any duplication. This was done so only markers which are truly one-of-a-kind get added to the database.

Monsanto and AgriLife Research will submit the markers to globally accessible cotton genome databases, specifically CottonDB and The Cotton Marker Database.

“We'll work with international groups,” Cantrell said.