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The Science Building

The Science of Cotton

Cotton has been cultivated and used to make fabrics for at least 7,000 years. It may have existed in Egypt as early as 12,000 B.C. Pieces of cotton fabrics have been found by archeologists in Mexico (from 3500 B.C.), in India (3000 B.C.), in Peru (2500 B.C.), and in the southwestern United States (500 B.C.).

Cotton is the best-selling natural fiber in America today, and is a very important crop. It is grown in 17 states, and is a major crop in 14. The Cotton Belt is a term that describes the Southern region of the US, where cotton was a major cash crop from the 18th and into the 20th centuries, and it stretches from Virginia all the way to California.

The cotton plant has many different uses. The fiber is woven into apparel, but the seeds are also used as a high-quality feed for cows. The seeds can be pressed and turned into cottonseed oil that we can use in cooking. Cotton is in everything from ice cream, to wall paper, to hot dog casings and baseballs - not to mention lots of things we use at home, like cotton swabs, wipes, and even diapers.

Cotton is very drought and heat-tolerant, and so does not require lots of water. In fact, cotton uses less water than many other major crops produced in this country. Only 35% of cotton grown in the U.S. requires some form of irrigation. The rest of the cotton is grown only using natural rainfall. Cotton producers are also much more efficient in using water. Compared to 25 years ago, U.S. farmers are now using 45% less irrigation water to grow a pound of cotton.

Someday soon, humans may even be able to eat cotton! We can't eat cotton today because it contains gossypol, a compound in cottonseed that is toxic for us. But cotton plants need the toxin in their stems and leaves, where it stops pests from breeding. So scientists needed to find a way to remove it from the seeds, but keep it in the leaves and stems. Recently, scientists at Texas A&M University were able to stop the gossypol from growing in just the seeds. This is very exciting news, since every pound of cotton fiber yields 1.6 pounds of cottonseed. Scientists are still working on this research, but the hope is that one day soon we could eat cottonseed, too!

Did you know your old, worn, or too-small denim jeans can be recycled into natural cotton fiber insulation through the COTTON. FROM BLUE TO GREEN.® denim recycling program? Recently, Cotton Incorporated partnered with National Geographic Kids Magazine to set the Guinness World Record™ for Largest Collection of Clothes to Recycle. Kids all over the country answered the call, ultimately donating 33,088 pairs of jeans! For more information, check out our website: www.CottonFromBlueToGreen.org.