Dr. Keerti Rathore discusses the ultra low gossypol cotton with his team, Dr. Devendra Pandeya and LeAnne Campbell. (Beth Luedeker/Texas A&M AgriLife)
Despite the obstacles, failures and lack of funding at times, Rathore said it was the dedication and loyalty of his team and supporters such as the late Dr. Norman Borlaug, who was known as the “father of the Green Revolution,” that kept him going on this project.
“Dr. Borlaug was the biggest supporter of this project and during the lean times when I was struggling to get funding and after the failed attempts – there were many, it was his words of encouragement that provided the inspiration to continue,” Rathore said.
While there were many team members over the years working on the project, he said key contributors to its advancement were Dr. Devendra Pandeya, LeAnne Campbell, Dr. Sreenath Palle and Dr. Sunilkumar Ganesan, all who worked in his laboratory at Texas A&M, as well as by Dr. Robert Stipanovic and associates with USDA-Agricultural Research Service who conducted biochemical analysis of gossypol levels in the ULGCS lines.
“It feels good to have come this far as Texas A&M AgriLife is only the fourth public institution to have accomplished such a feat as deregulation of an engineered crop.”
Rathore’s research has been reported on in numerous peer-reviewed science journals and he has been granted several U.S. patents. In 2006, he published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences announcing the cotton plants had been successfully altered in the lab to “silence” gossypol in the seed. In 2009, field trials verified the lab and greenhouse studies indicating the crop could become a source of protein.
The cottonseed from these plants met World Health Organization and FDA standards for food consumption, he said, thus opening the potential to make the new source of high-protein food available to hundreds of millions of people a year.
Rathore said cottonseed, with about 23 percent protein content, can play an important role in human nutrition with the gossypol eliminated, especially in countries where cereal/tuber-based diets provide most of the calories but are low in protein content.
“Growing up in rural India as the son of a doctor, I had seen the effects of malnutrition firsthand in my father’s patients,” he said. “Many of their health issues were due to inadequate food and nutrition.”
Rathore said for every pound of cotton fiber, the plant produces about 1.6 pounds of seed. The annual global cottonseed production equals about 48.5 million tons.
“The kernels from the safe seed could be ground into a flour-like powder after oil extraction and used as a protein additive in food preparations or perhaps roasted and seasoned as a nutritious snack,” he said.
Rathore said cotton will continue to be grown as a source of natural fiber, but the adoption of the ultra-low gossypol varieties by farmers has the potential to make the seed just as valuable as the lint.
“Our approach, based on the removal of a naturally occurring, toxic compound from the cottonseed, not only improves its safety but also provides a novel means to meet the nutritional requirements of the burgeoning world population,” he said.
Aside from the human aspect, Rathore said the potential of ultra-low gossypol cottonseed as a fish meal replacement in the diets of shrimp and southern flounder has been demonstrated. Additional aquaculture and poultry feeding studies are planned to fully evaluate the nutritional value of the unique cottonseed.
Even after this deregulation hurdle has been jumped, the team knows the work is not done.
“The next major effort will be aimed at activities to demonstrate the value-added potential of this technology,” Wedegaertner said. “The first step will be to produce enough ULGCS seed for a commercial-scale production run at a cottonseed oil mill. This will take a couple of years.”
Rathore said development of ULGCS involved several patented technologies, so additional steps must be taken to secure agreements with the patent holders, then to find a seed company willing to market the ULGCS trait and make it available to cotton farmers worldwide.
Rathore said as a scientist who has conceived and developed this technology, “My personal preference as we move forward would be to follow the ‘Golden Rice’ example in terms of its use for humanitarian purposes.”
This article by Kay Ledbetter originally appeared in AgriLife Today.