Increasing Yield and Quality Continue in Cotton Breeding

Gerald O. Myers, Dickson, John I.

Gerald O. Myers and John I. Dickson

Cotton is one of the oldest textile fibers in the world, reaching back until the fifth or fourth millennium B.C., with some of the earliest cultivation occurring in Mexico, India, Egypt and China. One of the earliest reports of its cultivation in what is now the United States dates to 1556 in Florida, though it was found growing in the wild by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and along the banks of the Mississippi and its tributaries by subsequent explorers. The first reported cultivation in Louisiana dates to 1729, but reports tracing to the early 17th century exist. Louisiana State University Agricultural Experiment Station bulletins mentioning cotton fertility research appeared in 1886, and the first testing of 22 different cotton varieties appeared in 1887. Then, cotton variety trial yields ranged from 420 to 586 pounds of lint per acre. More than a century later, the state’s average yield has doubled.

Systematic research in cotton breeding and genetic improvement began in Louisiana when H.B. Brown joined the staff of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station in 1926 after working as a cotton breeder for Mississippi State University from 1916 to 1922 and an organizer for the Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Company for four years. Initial work in 1926 was on conducting variety testing across the state. Production scale lint yields at that time (a 10-year average from 1916 to 1927) in Louisiana were 152 pounds per acre. The year 1929 was a good year for cotton in Louisiana, with an average yield of 189 pounds of lint per acre across 44 cotton-producing parishes. The most widely planted variety was Half and Half, which was 39.2% of the crop, and Brown stressed the importance of selecting good, locally adapted varieties for planting with the advice, “It costs no more to grow a good variety than a poor one.” The objectives of the cotton improvement and breeding program were to increase lint yield, to produce more uniform, longer cotton fiber and to produce larger bolls.

Increasing the yield and quality of cotton continues to be the focus of the LSU cotton breeding research program. In Brown’s era, source material for the breeding program came from his prior work at Mississippi State University and Stoneville. Breeding methods included reselections out of existing material to create hybridizations and make them more locally adapted. Early studies by Brown also involved investigations of leaf shape and plant pubescence. At the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, he also conducted research on improving wilt (Fusarium) resistance in cotton and led a 10-year study on the effect of inbreeding on vigor (heterosis) and production in cotton. In 1936, Brown was joined by John Cotton, a U.S. Department of Agriculture cotton breeder and geneticist who contributed to the improvement of disease resistance in Louisiana cotton.

When Brown retired in 1946, Ferd W. Self became the lead cotton breeder, and a major effort was initiated to improve fiber and seed quality. The release of Stardel in 1955 represented a significant advance in fiber strength and uniformity. Stardel Glandless, a commercial variety released in 1967, was marketed as Rogers OB1.

M.T. Henderson served with Self and was involved in cotton genetics. Many of Henderson’s students went on to have a major impact on the cotton industry. One of these students, Jack E. Jones, was responsible for cotton breeding and variety development at the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station from 1950 to 1990. Jones' research focused on the Fusarium wilt-nematode disease complex, reniform nematodes, key insect pests (bollworms and budworms, boll weevils and plant bugs) and how open-canopy traits affected boll rot, earliness, insects and yield. These studies resulted in the release of three varieties with unique leaf shapes: Gumbo, an okra leaf (narrow leaf) variety released in 1976; Pronto, a super okra leaf variety released in 1976; and Gumbo 500, an improved okra leaf variety released in 1981.

Jones made numerous contributions to cotton breeding and genetics. Significant commercial impact was achieved through the release and licensing of several cotton varieties. Transgenic, or genetically engineered, versions of these varieties were also marketed. Notable among these were Paymaster 1218BG, the most widely planted cotton variety in the Midsouth in 2001 and 2002, and Stoneville ST 5599 BR. Jones also released numerous cotton lines, notable among these being several with a trait for improved resistance to the budworm and bollworm complex, with resistance to root-knot or reniform nematode pests, or other host plant resistance traits. One of the more important lines in the development of root-knot resistance in cotton was not bred by Jones, but it is attributed to him — Wild Mexican Jack Jones. Jones was recognized with the Cotton Genetics Research Award in 1985. His impact is extended by the numerous graduate students he mentored.

Serving alongside Jones for many years was another LSU cotton breeder, David Caldwell, whose research interests included naked seed types, root-knot nematode resistance and genetic male sterility. Caldwell was coordinator of the state cotton variety trials and a collaborator on various national and regional testing programs.

From 1990 to 1994, Steve Calhoun conducted the cotton breeding and improvement program for the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station. He continued Jones’ host plant resistance work, especially in the area of budworm/bollworm resistance and calyx glanding. Their collaboration led to the licensed release through Hartz (Paymaster) of three varieties: H1215, H1220 and H1244.

Since 1994, the Cotton Breeding and Genetics Program has been directed by Gerald Myers and retains the historical focus of developing cotton breeding lines and varieties with high yield potential and superior fiber quality specifically adapted to Louisiana and the Midsouth. Research trials are undertaken in collaboration with LSU AgCenter scientists and research stations across the state, as well as cotton breeders across the United States through participation in the National Cotton Variety Trial, the Regional High Quality Tests and the Regional Breeder Testing Network. The latter program is a model for the cooperative testing of advanced breeding lines, provides access to elite material for use in breeding, functions across public cotton breeding programs throughout the U.S. and has recently expanded to some private and international collaborators — all under the blanket of one, simple agreement.

The current breeding program is based on a different breeding method but has the same goals that have underpinned the LSU AgCenter’s cotton improvement program since the late 19th century: high and stable yielding varieties with superior fiber quality. As with previous generations of breeders, other research areas that could contribute to this overall goal are investigated. This includes developing germplasm with tolerance to both root-knot and reniform nematodes and developing varieties with different plant characteristics.

Recently concluded research projects have shown that the insertion of transgenes (genes transferred from another organism) for insect and herbicide resistance has made subtle changes in other plant characteristics and identified new sources of resistance to the root-knot nematode. Other projects have focused on improving the efficiency of breeding for better yield and fiber quality, efficient methods of producing hybrid cotton, stress tolerance and novel methods to incorporate beneficial traits from interspecific relatives.

Fiber Improvement

Integral to developing cotton with improved fiber quality has been the Cotton Fiber Testing Laboratory on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. The fiber lab is equipped with a modern Uster High Volume Instrument for comprehensive fiber evaluation. This service is invaluable in providing information on the fiber quality.

Modern plant breeding methods and new technological tools can reduce the time needed to develop improved varieties, address pest and weed pressure, and ease agronomic management, and this can all be done with greater precision than ever before. The state average cotton yield in 2020 was over 1,100 pounds of lint per acre, double what it was in the first Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station variety reports. Fiber quality is up over 25% for the key traits of length and strength with further progress expected. The second century of cotton improvement research at the LSU AgCenter is full of promise.

Gerald O. Myers is a professor and John I. Dickson is an instructor in the School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences.

(This article appears in the spring 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

6/1/2021 10:45:03 PM
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