Biotechnology � technology based in biology, and usually encompassing genetic engineering - has revolutionized the cotton industry. Bt cotton, which was first widely introduced in 1996, included genes from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. This meant that the cotton boll was now able to produce toxins specifically to eliminate pests, thereby severely reducing the cotton producer's reliance on traditional pesticides. As a result, cotton yields also increased; prior to 1996, cotton producers lost a significant amount of their acreage to pests like the cotton bollworms and tobacco budworms, which had grown resistant to traditional insecticide applications. Bt cotton, and Bt cotton hybrids, are now cultivated world-wide.
Biotechnology is also paving the way forward for cotton, thanks to breakthrough research that would offer cottonseed as a high-volume, low-cost food source. Gossypol is a compound in cottonseed that's toxic to humans. But cotton plants secrete the toxin into their stems and leaves, where it works to inhibit pests' ability to breed, thereby reducing their numbers. So scientists needed to find a way to remove it from the seeds, but keep it in the leaves and stems.
The company turned over its initial findings to Texas A&M University and provided funding for the continuation of the research. In March of 2006, Dr. Keerti Rathore, the plant biotechnologist leading the research at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, announced they had achieved their goal using a new technique called RNA interference (RNAi), which successfully blocked the gossypol-producing enzyme in the seeds alone.
Now the challenge is to carry out the findings over the course of several generations of the cotton plan, both in the laboratory and in the field, to ensure that the RNAi continues to repress the gossypol-producing enzyme successfully. The ramifications of this research are enormous; for every pound of cotton fiber harvested, the cotton plant also yields 1.6 pounds of cottonseed - which are now poised to become a high-protein food source for developing countries around the world.