Researchers at Texas A&M University received good news this month: on October 18, the US Department of Agriculture announced it would deregulate a strain of cotton that university researchers had genetically engineered to carry low levels of poisonous gossypol in its seeds. The idea is that the modified cotton’s seeds could be grown for food.
Cotton is known for its white fibers that can be woven into soft fabrics. But for every pound of fluffy, white lint, the plant produces 1.6 pounds of peanut-size seeds, according to the NPR blog The Salt. Those seeds contain high levels of gossypol, which protects the plant against pests and disease but makes cotton seeds inedible.
Texas A&M’s Keerti Rathore and colleagues inserted DNA into the cotton plant to turn off the gene responsible for producing gossypol in the seeds. The genetically engineered strain still has protective levels of gossypol in its shoots and leaves, but reduced amounts in its oil- and protein-rich seeds, which could potentially be eaten by humans, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announcement. The team even roasted and ate a few of the seeds; they tasted like chickpeas, Rathore tells The Salt.
With the USDA’s approval, farmers are free to grow the genetically engineered cotton plants, but they’ll need the green light from the US Food and Drug Administration before they’re sold for human or animal consumption. Currently, cotton seeds can be fed to cows, which are unaffected by gossypol, but the new strain could serve as feed for chickens or fish as well, and be marketed for humans to eat.
“A lot of these countries [such as India] that do suffer from malnutrition are also cotton producers,” Rathore tells The Salt. “So I think that those countries may benefit much more from this technology.”