Everyone’s favorite pair of jeans and jammies started out as bunch of
single celled fibers growing on tiny cottonseeds. The cotton plant is a
shrub that is native to tropical and subtropical climates around the
world. The cotton fiber is a collection of single cells made of almost
pure celluloseThe structural component of the primary cell wall of green plants. Wood pulp and cotton provides most of the cellulose for industrial uses. Cotton is almost 90% cellulose.
. These fibers’ naturally springy structure gives them
lots of strength, durability, and absorbency. When dried, they form
flat, twisted, ribbon-like shapes perfect for spinning fine yarn and
clothing you and all your friends.
Cotton evolved on almost every continent, but it took cotton from the
opposite ends of the earth to create the plant we use today. A
one-in-a-million chance meeting of an American plant with an African
plant (or Asian, we’re not sure!) produced the cotton ancestor that
gives us 90% of the world’s commercial cotton. Through the
domesticationThe process of genetically adapting wild animals and plants into cultivated forms that suit the interests of human beings
process, breeders grew cotton plants with longer,
stronger, softer and more numerous fibers. When the cotton genomeAll the genetic material in the chromosomes of an organism, whether animal, plant, or microbe
fully sequenced, scientists might figure out exactly which genes
control traits like softness or strength.
Another way that genome scientists can help cotton farmers is by
developing and breeding plants that require less water. Cotton is a
thirsty crop, and as water resources get tighter around the world,
economies that rely on it face difficulties and conflict. Cotton
farming also brings environmental concerns. Because cotton is a target
for nasty bug infestations, many growers heavily douse their plants in
pesticides that are dangerous to human and animal health. Plants bred
or engineered with enhanced natural defense mechanisms may reduce the
need for these chemicals and improve the environment.