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BYU students are coauthors in world’s top scientific journal

Cotton research could lead to stronger fibers, better production

You probably don’t think about it much, but there’s almost always something made of cotton around you.

It’s in most of your clothes, various other textiles, even in the bindings of your books — cotton products are everywhere. In the U.S., more than 430,000 domestic jobs are related to the multi-billion dollar industry of cotton production and processing.

A BYU professor and students were recently part of a prominent study of the cotton genome that could have a major impact on this important industry. The study is published in the current issue of Nature, the world’s most highly cited science journal.

“The new cotton genome sequence provides the genetic blueprint of the cotton plant including all of its genes and regulatory regions,” said Joshua Udall, study coauthor and BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor. “One of the primary focuses of cotton research is improvement of cotton fiber to make it longer and stronger.”

Scientists are calling this the “gold standard” genome sequence for cotton. Researchers from all over the world contributed to the study. Udall worked with two of his undergraduate students and two graduate students at BYU. All were listed as coauthors in the study.

David Harker, a BYU genetics and biotechnology undergraduate at the time, headed up the process of mapping the cotton genome using genetic markers, essential in assembling the genome sequence into the correct order. He said working on this research was invaluable in preparing him for medical school.

“I really enjoyed my experience working in Dr. Udall's lab on this project, and appreciate the opportunity BYU gives undergrads to get seriously involved in research,” said Harker, who is currently attending the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. “I learned a lot about the scientific process and my critical thinking skills were honed because of my involvement.”

Harker came a long way from when he started working in Udall’s lab. He went from simply watering, fertilizing and applying pesticide to the cotton plants to becoming the resident expert on the lab’s genotyping equipment.

“I was generating, analyzing, interpreting and summarizing real experimental data,” Harker said, “and it was awesome.”

Because of the study, researchers are now using the same blueprint and have a better way to look at the cotton genome. Cotton breeders can use this to breed cotton that produces more and better fiber.

“Better cotton breeding, means cheaper cotton, means cheaper clothes,” said Justin Page, one of the other BYU undergrad coauthors who recently graduated with a computer science-bioinformatics degree. Page worked at finding gene expression in cotton fibers and oil seeds using the Fulton SuperComputer.

Robert Byers and Aditi Rambani were the BYU graduate students involved in the research.

The lead author of the study was University of Georgia Regents Professor Andrew Paterson. Contributors from all across the U.S., as well as in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Israel and other countries also worked on the study.

This research has some important implications for the future study of flowering plants. Domesticated cotton has a unique polyploid genome, meaning that all the chromosomes are duplicated. Within the study, researchers were able to compare cotton’s genome to its diploid progenitors and uncover the evolutionary process that resulted in the cotton we have today.

“The sequenced genome is the DNA sequence for one set of the duplicated chromosome,” Udall said, “and it will allow us to better investigate the unique consequences of gene duplication and selection during domestication.”


Originally published in BYU News