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Cotton in Space: What Clemson’s ISS Project Wants to Accomplish

Outer space could be fertile ground for cotton cultivation.

Clemson researcher Chris Saski’s project titled “Unlocking the Cotton Genome to Precision Genetics” being conducted in microgravity onboard the International Space Station (ISS) aims to facilitate the ability to directly edit the genome of elite cotton varieties to allow for quickly adding traits like disease resistance or drought tolerance without the need for the lengthy conventional breeding process that can take over a decade.

With no solution yet in place to satisfy a growing demand for fuel, food and fiber as the global population continues to expand, Saski believes this research “is a large step in the right direction” toward solving that problem.

“Conducting these experiments in microgravity gives us a unique environment to disentangle the genetics of somatic embryogenesis–regenerating a whole plant from a single cell–and we believe we can translate this research into application,” said Saski, an associate professor of systems genomic in Clemson’s Plant and Environmental Sciences Department.

“This project will lead to new understanding of the genes involved,” Saski said. “This research could ultimately allow us to switch on this genetic program in other crops and be able to do genome editing and engineering more readily and directly on commercial varieties … and eventually provide an accelerated path to food, fuel and fiber for a growing population of people on Earth.”

Clemson researcher Chris Saski’s project onboard the International Space Station aims to edit the genome of elite cotton varieties.
Clemson researcher Chris Saski and research scientist Sonika Kumar in the lab. Courtesy

The project was selected as a winner in the Cotton Sustainability Challenge, which was run by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and funded by Target Corporation, providing researchers and innovators the opportunity to propose solutions to improve crop production on Earth by sending their concepts to the ISS U.S. National Laboratory.

Don Jones, director of breeding, genetics and biotechnology at Cotton Incorporated, told Sourcing Journal that previous studies in plants have indicated that the genetic program to regenerate is encoded in the DNA, but those genes are suppressed.

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“This project seeks to discover what genes control regeneration in cotton and how they are regulated in the DNA,” Jones said.  “This new understanding can be used by scientists to trigger regeneration, essentially enabling the ability to directly edit elite cotton lines. “This would mean if a gene or a genetic pathway needed to be added to cotton, “we could do it in far less time than the approximate 10 years now with conventional breeding.”

“If this project is successful, this would likely strengthen the linkages between cotton farmers, the industry and allied scientists,” Jones said. “We are in an era of population expansion and unpredictable climactic events that are demanding farmers grow more crops on less land with less water.  It is expected that success of this project will lead to concept translation to other crop plants to accelerate incorporation of necessary traits for specific environments.”