Cotton: The Fabric of Our…Lunch?

Feedloader (Clickability)

Food, clothing and shelter are considered the three most basic human needs. Cotton has done a pretty good job of fulfilling the clothing part for millennia; scientists have found bits of cotton cloth in caves in Mexico that proved to be at least 7,000 years old. But now cotton could be making a move into another part of the triad, as food. And we're not talking about cotton candy.

Cottonseed is rich in protein, making it promising as a nutritious food source, especially for malnourished people in developing countries. The problem has been that it is inedible to humans and most animals other than cows because it also contains a toxic chemical called gossypol that protects the plant from insects and disease. Previous attempts to engineer a digestible seeds were unsuccessful because they produced cotton plants that were also low in gossypol, leaving the plants vulnerable to infestation.

But plant biotechnologists at Texas A & M University's Texas AgriLife Research, led by Keerti Rathore, have developed a cotton that has low levels of gossypol in the seed but retains enough of the toxin in the rest of the plant to protect it from pests. Field trials to verify the results of earlier lab and greenhouse studies have shown good results.

Rathore and his team used a process called RNA interference, discovered by Nobel laureates Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, which "silences" specific genes.

Aside from providing the world with a new protein source—the seeds are about 22 percent protein—making another part of the cotton crop commercially viable would be good for the cotton industry. And the seed is fairly tasty, according to Rathore, who told Time magazine it tastes like chickpeas.

As a genetically modified organism (GMO), though, the seed faces several obstacles to becoming widely available, including public resistance to GMOs, especially overseas. AgriLife would also have to negotiate with patent holders of some of the basic technologies used to develop the seed and get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration before the cotton could go to market.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.