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November 28, 2017

Comparison of different species of cotton

Upland cotton (right), evolved from the hybridization of two ancestral species, one similar to G. raimondii (left) and one similar to G. arboreum (middle), and has longer fibers than either. Researchers have taken the first step toward a new way of breeding heartier, more productive cotton through a process called epigenetic modification.

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In recent decades, scientists have discovered that many traits in living things are controlled not just by their genetics, but also by processes outside their DNA that determine whether, when and how much the genes are expressed, known as epigenetics. This opens up the possibility of entirely new ways to breed plants and animals. By selectively turning gene expression on and off, breeders could create new varieties without altering the genes.

Research led by Z. Jeffrey Chen, the D.J. Sibley Centennial Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics in the Department of Molecular Biosciences at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), and a team have taken the first step toward a new way of breeding heartier, more productive cotton through a process called epigenetic modification.

During their study, the researchers identified more than 500 genes that are epigenetically modified between wild cotton varieties and domesticated cotton, some of which are known to relate to agronomic and domestication traits. This information could aid selection for the kinds of traits that breeders want to alter, like fiber yield or resistance to drought, heat or pests. For example, varieties of wild cotton might harbor genes that help them respond better to drought, but have been epigenetically silenced in domesticated cotton.

"This understanding will allow us to supplement genetic breeding with epigenetic breeding," says Chen. "Since we know now how epigenetic changes affect flowering and stress responses, you could reactivate stress-responsive genes in domesticated cotton."

This research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (grants IOS 1025947 and IOS 1444552).

Read more about this research in the UT-Austin news story First Step Taken Toward Epigenetically Modified Cotton. (Date image taken: 2015; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: Nov. 28, 2017)

Credit: Photo courtesy the Chen Laboratory

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