Flame-resistant cotton could be on the horizon following a breakthrough.
Scientists have developed a cheaper and safer thread by interbreeding two lines of the fabric.
It could also help combat climate change-sparked wildfires.
Products derived from the plant range from blue jeans, bedsheets and paper to candles and peanut butter.
In the US alone, the industry is worth $7 billion a year.
Lead author Dr. Gregory Thyssen, of the Cotton Chemistry and Utilization Research Unit in New Orleans, said: “Textiles made from cotton fibers are flammable and thus often include flame retardant additives for consumer safety.”
The team’s technique created mutations resulting in superior traits to those of the parents.
Screening identified naturally enhanced flame retardance.
Thyssen said: “All eleven parents, like all conventional white fiber cotton cultivars, produce flammable fabric.
“Of the textiles fabricated, four exhibited the novel characteristic of inherent flame resistance.
“When exposed to open flame in testing, these four fabrics self-extinguished.”
Plants from fields in India, China and the US – the world’s top three producers – all grow, flower and produce cotton fiber very similarly.
That’s because they are genetically very similar.
Breeders select the best-performing plants and cross-breed them to produce better cotton every generation.
If one variety produces the best-quality fiber that sells for the best price, growers will plant that type exclusively.
But after many years of this cycle, cultivated cotton all starts to look the same.
High-yielding and easy for farmers to harvest using machines, but wildly under prepared to fight disease, drought or insect-borne pathogens.
Thyssen said: “Together, these data provide insight into the genetic mechanism of the unexpected emergence of flame-resistant cotton in a breeding program.
“The incorporation of this trait into global cotton breeding has the potential to greatly reduce the costs and impacts of flame-retardant chemicals.”
Plants have very large genomes with lots of repetitive sequences, which makes them very challenging to unpack.
However, a team of researchers changed the game for cotton genetics in 2020 by releasing five updated genomes – two cultivated and three wild species.
Having the wild genomes assembled makes it possible to start using their valuable genes to try to improve cultivated varieties of cotton by breeding them together and looking for those genes in the offspring.
This approach combines traditional plant breeding with detailed insights into cotton’s genome.
We now know which genes we need to make cultivated cotton more resistant to disease, drought and fire. And we also know where to avoid making changes to important agricultural genes.
Thyssen said: “Flammability of textiles is an obvious safety and economic concern for textile and cotton consumers, producers and regulatory agencies.
“Modernizing flame retardant chemicals has been the focus of research for many years.”
The study was published in the journal PLOS One.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker.