Magazine article Science News

Toxin Buster: New Technique Makes Cottonseeds Edible

Magazine article Science News

Toxin Buster: New Technique Makes Cottonseeds Edible

Article excerpt

Scientists have engineered cotton plants to produce seeds that are missing a poisonous compound that had previously rendered them inedible. With the amount of crop currently planted, such modified cottonseeds could fill the daily protein needs of about 500 million people, the researchers say.

For every kilogram of fiber, commercial cotton plants produce about 1.65 kg of seeds. Though these seeds contain much high-quality protein, "right now, that's being wasted," says plant geneticist Keerti Rathore of Texas A&M University in College Station.

Like other parts of the cotton plant, cottonseeds harbor the compound gossypol, which is toxic to people and many other animals. Seed processors remove gossypol from cottonseed oil. However, the toxic compound is difficult to extract from the solid parts of the seed, which contain potentially useful protein.

In the 1960s, researchers discovered mutant cotton plants that didn't produce gossypol. But since the compound protects plants from insects, the plants were vulnerable to infestations and ended up a commercial failure.

Now, Rathore and his colleagues have used a technique called RNA interference (SN: 7/2/05, p. 7) to eliminate gossypol only in cottonseeds. The team worked with a gene that encodes a small piece of RNA that matches another RNA piece required for making gossypol. The researchers predicted that the two RNA strands would fuse, beginning a complex cellular process that prevents cells from producing the toxin.

The team inserted this RNA-making gene next to a piece of cotton-plant DNA that activates genes only in seeds, so gossypol production would continue elsewhere in the plants. …

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