UA expands genetic base for cotton breeders

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture has released a genetic breeding line that will expand the genetic base for improving cotton varieties for Arkansas.

“This line has good fiber length and is early-maturing,” says Fred Bourland, cotton breeder and director of the Northeast Research and Extension Center at Keiser, Ark. “It also has good resistance to several diseases and insects.

“It just misses being a good candidate for a new variety. But it has several valuable traits that other public and private breeders can crossbreed into their own breeding lines.”

The cotton breeding program at the University of Arkansas has two main objectives. “First, we develop plant breeding material that broadens the genetic base for both public and private cotton breeders.”

Private breeders, working for commercial seed companies, don't have as much freedom to try new things, Bourland says. “We can afford to look in more detail without the risks the commercial breeders face. If we don't end up with a new variety, we can still publish our results and add breeding lines that, though they may not meet the requirements of a new variety, at least add useful traits to the gene pool that other breeders can draw from.”

The second objective of the UA breeding program is to push commercial breeders to develop new varieties that meet the needs of Arkansas cotton producers.

“Commercial transgenic varieties make up at least 90 percent of the cotton grown today. We don't have the resources to develop the transgenic traits producers demand. But we look specifically for things that benefit Arkansas growers: disease and pest resistance or stress tolerances that may not promote volumes of sales for seed companies, but that help crops thrive in Arkansas growing conditions.”

Bourland says commercial breeders often genetically modify breeding lines from the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station to produce new transgenic varieties. “It's a partnership between public and private breeding programs that benefits producers.”

For example, the university is evaluating another seven cotton breeding lines for possible release. These lines will be used to develop both conventional public cultivars and transgenic commercial cultivars.

The Arkansas cotton breeding objectives include resistance to diseases and pests found in the state, stress tolerance, good plant growth habits, abundant yield and good fiber quality and ginning characteristics.

Plant breeding is a team effort, Bourland says. Cotton geneticist Mac Stewart looks for unique traits in wild or exotic cotton plants for transfer into promising breeding lines. Cotton physiologist Derrick Oosterhuis is developing techniques for selecting plants with stress tolerance. Nematologist Terry Kirkpatrick screens plants for resistance to root-knot nematode and entomologist Glen Studebaker is working on resistance to insect pests. Plant pathologists like Craig Rothrock and others are working on disease resistance.

“We've had to be Jacks of all trades in the cotton breeding business,” Bourland says. “But I think the next generation of cotton breeders will be more specialized, pushed by advances in biotechnology and transgenic materials.”

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