Mark A. Philbrick, Photo courtesy, Mark A. Philbrick, Mark A. Philbrick
BYU professor Joshua Udall and his students have been unlocking the DNA secrets of cotton in an effort to improve the durability of cotton fiber and increase the plant's yield.

PROVO — To an untrained eye, the sequences on a supercomputer look only like indecipherable code. For a team of researchers at BYU, however, the code they've been unlocking is not hieroglyphic at all — those sequences are maps of DNA, like a human genome project, but for cotton.

BYU professor Joshua Udall and his students contributed to cotton research compelling enough to be published in the current issue of "Nature," the world's leading science journal.

According to Justin Page, one of the participating BYU students, the team mapped the genes and sequences of cotton DNA, which allows them to test hybrids and improve the cotton.

"For cotton breeders, it's nice because it can help us make cheaper cotton," Page said. "What we're trying to do is make longer fibers and stronger fibers. The way cotton breeders do that is they need to know where all the genes are so that they can make hybrids that kind of combine the best parts of multiple types of cotton."

Udall said previous efforts in cotton breeding have been necessary in developing today's cotton, but so far that work has been "the result of a long and expensive effort." The advances he and his students have contributed will play a role to enhance current cotton breeding efforts.

"The genetic sequence isn't a shortcut that will instantly create tons of new cotton, but its availability will be incrementally incorporated such that our year-to-year gains should be a bit greater than the historical record," Udall wrote in an email. "Thus, continued improvement efforts combined with the genetic sequence will lead to significant improvements to cotton production in the next several years."

BYU graduate David Harker, another contributor and undergraduate at the time, said a major goal of cotton research is learning how to make it stronger and more resistant to wear-and-tear, which happens when breeders merge plants with desirable qualities.

The genome research is helping scientists and breeders better understand cotton at its core, which, in the short term, will potentially mean cheaper cotton. As for the long term, the cotton genome project will potentially lead to enough food and cotton to support the world's growing population. Whether it's for wheat, peanuts, soybeans or canola, the cotton research will make it easier to build DNA maps for related plants. This could be crucial as the population grows.

"I saw estimates earlier that like, in 100 years, we're going to need 50 percent more food (and fiber) than we can produce right now," Page said.

One key to having enough is improving the yield of crops.

"We need each plant to give us more," he said. "We need to be able to cut down on our losses to pests and different things, otherwise, eventually we're going to get (to a point) where we don't have enough resources to support the human population."

The team's research is helping pave the way for more improvements in cotton and other plants by starting small: sequencing the DNA.