Five new scientists have recently begun training to become part of a new generation of cotton breeders, thanks to a fellowship program sponsored by Cotton Incorporated. It's work that begs doing if U.S. producers are to remain viable participants in an increasingly competitive world market.

As cotton consumption worldwide increases, new international players emerge to capture customers that once belonged almost exclusively to the United States. Never has efficiency, from soil to shirt, been more important.

And never has the need been greater for cotton varieties that produce more pounds, higher quality fiber and with tolerance for a host of chemicals, pests and weather conditions. Unfortunately, relatively few cotton breeders have been available to fill the gaps left by retirees.

Cotton Incorporated hopes the fellowship program will reverse that trend. The five “cotton breeders-in-training,” scattered throughout the Cotton Belt, are already working towards giving U.S. producers a technological advantage.

Brian Gardunia, at College Station, Texas, hopes to isolate traits in wild cotton that will improve fiber quality and enhance environmental tolerance. He has some likely suspects from Brazil and Hawaii and will spend a good part of his PhD efforts at Texas A&M trying to develop a better cotton variety.

Joseph Johnson is trying to breed yield stability and quality characteristics into productive cotton lines. He's working with Fred Bourland at the University of Arkansas on developing breeding techniques.

Michael Palmer will work on DNA marker systems in cotton to improve efficiency in genetic cotton breeding work. Palmer is pursuing a PhD in genetics from Clemson University and has already worked in high-throughput DNA sequencing and optimizing protocols to increase efficiency. That's a mouthful of scientific jargon, but the gist is that he'll use his expertise in genetics to find better, more efficient cotton varieties.

Chris Braden is working on cotton genetic diversity and fiber improvement. He expects to receive his doctorate from Texas A&M in 2004 and is currently working for Cotton Incorporated on cotton genetic diversity and fiber quality.

Brooks Blanche will examine diverse environments to determine effects on cotton yield and quality. Blanche is working toward a doctorate at Louisiana State University and hopes his research will expand potential to predict variety performance.

“Cotton Incorporated realizes that we need to reverse the trend of a relatively few cotton breeders coming out of our universities,” Johnson said at this year's Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville. “These fellowship grants encourage agricultural school graduates to get further training in cotton breeding.”

Johnson said his current assignment is “on-the-job training with Dr. Bourland. I'm employed by Cotton Incorporated and stationed at the University of Arkansas. This is a great way to get practical experience.”

Johnson has already earned his PhD from Mississippi State University and he worked for two years at Monsanto, “doing back-cross work.” He's been with the fellowship program since April.

Gardunia earned a Master's Degree in agronomy at Brigham Young University. The Cotton Incorporated fellowship program will give him some direction in his PhD program at Texas A&M.

“I'll work on finding the best breeding methods to handle wild cotton species,” he said.

He's looking closely at two selections, one from Brazil and one from Hawaii, that show promise for improving fiber quality and environmental tolerance.

“The Hawaii selection is the closest wild relation to upland cotton,” he said. “I think it offers real potential for improving fiber quality and tolerance.”

He said the cotton, which grows along the beaches in Hawaii, could provide salt tolerance in new varieties.

“It's hard to say yet what we'll find,” he said. “But we hope to discover much finer fibers than we have in upland cotton. It will be at least a year before we have a good feel for these wild cotton species.”

Roy Cantrell, vice president, Cotton Incorporated, expects the five fellows to find a lot. The fellowship program “is one of the more exciting components of our Breeding and Genetics initiative,” he said.

“This program provides the opportunity for training the next generation of U.S. scientists in cotton improvement. The five, recruited nationally, all with excellent academic and research credentials, are already involved in (crucial) research areas. We believe the challenges facing cotton requires us to enlist the greatest minds in our universities.”

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

Cantrell said the focus on germplasm makes sense. “Germplasm resembles the foundation of a house. You would be concerned if it was cracked and crumbling.”

He said the situation took at least twenty years to develop.

“The genetic base of cotton is now being re-built through germplasm enhancement. This is very appropriate research for Cotton Incorporated in partnership with state universities and USDA.”

He said the industry has much to learn. “The beginning of our germplasm research is a mining expedition. There is plenty of genetic diversity, a lot of gold in the hills. The difficulty is knowing what to use and how to use it!”

Biotechnology, he said, complements the process. “In 2003, the number of DNA markers in cotton will increase more than three-fold.”

Cantrell emphasized the need for increased interest in cotton genetics by citing a recent World Health Organization report that indicates the “greatest health threat to man is not AIDS or cancer but starvation. “We should all be concerned about how to feed and clothe a rapidly growing human population who, for the most part, cannot afford the drugs developed by the miracles of medical biotechnology.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com