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Tropical Treasure Turns 60

The Cotton Winter Nursery (CWN) in Tecoman, Mexico, is a vital resource for both maintenance of cotton germplasm and faster variety development. The CWN will turn 60 in 2010, making it one of the longest running cooperative facilities of its kind. Since its inception, it has been operated jointly by the Agricultural Research Service, the National Cotton Council of America, and the Mexican Institute of Forestry, Agriculture, and Livestock Research, Mexico’s ARS equivalent. Government, academic, and industry scientists serve on an advisory committee.

A comprehensive collection of cotton’s genetic diversity is essential for protecting and enhancing the nation’s $3.8 billion cotton crop. Scientists conduct research on genetic diversity to help improve key agronomic traits for cotton. For example, cotton breeders seek to develop plants that produce long, strong fibers of uniform length and are resistant to pest, pathogens, and environmental extremes.

With more than 9,000 lines, or “accessions,” the ARS Cotton Germplasm Collection in College Station, Texas, is a storehouse of unique genetic matter that could prove useful for increasing yields, improving fiber quality, and controlling future pests and pathogens. The CWN plays a major role in maintaining the viability of this collection. Cotton seeds stay viable for at least 10 years, but each accession kept at College Station must be raised from seed once every decade to maintain vigor. Many wild-collected accessions, essential for the collection’s genetic diversity, require the shorter days common in the nursery’s tropical location in order to reproduce. So the CWN is ARS’s primary site for producing new cotton seeds and plants. Says James Frelichowski, the collection’s curator, “We send between 900 and 1,000 cotton accessions to the CWN each year for seed increase.”

Cotton is particularly susceptible to pests and pathogens, and some experts attribute the recent stagnation in cotton yields to the crop’s narrow genetic base. But less than 1 percent of the plant’s genetic base has been explored. Scientists from ARS and many universities, state agricultural experiment stations, and private companies are currently conducting more than two dozen research projects at the CWN to identify genes from exotic and wild cotton plants that may improve fiber quality, increase yields, resist pests and pathogens, and enhance drought tolerance.

The CWN’s tropical location shortens the time required to study and develop new varieties, because scientists can raise two generations of cotton each year. “We can plant cotton in September in Mexico, take seeds from that crop in March or April, and plant the progeny seed in April or May of that same year in the southern United States,” says Frelichowski. Thus, the nursery plays a key role not only in maintaining a vital cotton collection, but also in developing new cotton varieties.—By Dennis O'Brien, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.

James Frelichowski is in the USDA-ARS Cotton Germplasm Research Unit, 2881 F&B Rd., College Station, TX 77845; (979) 260-9209.

"Tropical Treasure Turns 60" was published in the January 2010 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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